Kessel delivers during NWHL All-Star Game
A collection of hockey fans with “Kessel” on the backs of their shirts Sunday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry hardly represented an aberration. The Penguins have used that facility for open-to-the-public practices since the fall of 2015.
The presence of Phil Kessel among the spectators was a surprise, though.
Amanda Kessel, Phil's sister, served as a captain and central spectacle during the National Women's Hockey League All-Star Game and lived up to the family's scoring standard with a hat trick during her team's 11-10 win over a team captained by Kelley Steadman, a forward for the Buffalo Beauts and director of hockey operations for Robert Morris' women's team.
Like her brother, Kessel celebrated her success in the spotlight in aw-shucks, plainspoken manner.
“I'm just trying to help out as much as I can,” she said of her role as a star. “Hopefully, it's just — not being a big name — but just having that name helps promote our game.”
Arguably not since Tony and Cammi Granato has such American hockey star power come in a brother-sister combo. But Phil and Amanda Kessel share shy tendencies in front of the media. When asked earlier in the week if he expected to return to Pittsburgh following the Penguins' trip to Colorado and Arizona in time to catch the NWHL All-Star Game, Phil suggested the flight schedule might not work out in his favor.
Amanda said teammates pointed out her brother in the crowd late in the all-star game. He arrived in time to see Amanda complete her hat trick with an empty netter, which came after she missed an open cage with her first try.
After missing almost two years of hockey with concussion trouble, Kessel finds it easier to stomach the slight embarrassment from missing an empty net and the pressure to promote the league at news conferences. She returned to action with the University of Minnesota in early February 2016 and signed a one-year deal with the New York Riveters worth $26,000 in May to become the NWHL's highest-paid player.
“For me, it's just exciting to be here, be on the ice,” Kessel said. “It's not every day that I think about it, but very often, I think about how lucky I am to be playing the game I love again.”
All-Star weekend served as a strong reminder of that good fortune. At both Saturday's skills competition and Sunday's game, the cheers for Kessel rivaled those of Steadman and Robert Morris alum Brianne McLaughlin.
Who received more fan support, Kessel or Steadman, became popular postgame discussion.
“I honestly heard more ‘Steady,' I think,” Kessel said.
“That's my dad, he's loud,” Steadman, standing at the back of the news conference, said.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Kessel continued. “When I'm in a game, I tend to not hear the crowd. But I did hear the ‘Steady.' ”
Fan engagement remained steady with the help of a game that rarely suffered from dull stretches or excessively showy efforts. Kessel and Steadman's teams refused to relent at either end of the ice during the four-on-four action.
“We definitely wanted to come out and play hard,” Steadman said. “After that first shift, when (Meghan) Duggan put me into the net, I was like, ‘All right, good to go.' … We wanted to show the crowd what it's like in a real game, which is physical and fast. So that's what we did.”