Amanda Kessel was wearing skates and shuffling around the ice by the time she turned three. With two hockey-playing older brothers – including two-time Stanley Cup champion Phil Kessel – she didn’t really have much of a choice.
Later, when she began playing in youth leagues in her hometown of Madison, Wis., Kessel often found herself as the lone girl on boys’ teams. In those cases, she literally didn’t have a choice. “There weren’t opportunities to play on all-girls teams growing up at all,” Kessel said. “It was rare to even see another girl at the rink or on another team.”
Now, Kessel, 28, is the ambassador of a budding program that will create hockey opportunities she never had: girls-only programming, such as Try Hockey for Free clinics and an under-14 recreation league, in a youth hockey initiative presented by the New York Rangers.
Starting this fall, the initiative will serve 13 rinks in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), some of which have little or no girls-only programs. The Rangers will cover ice-time costs to make the offerings more affordable, as part of a goal to introduce hockey to more than 700 girls this season – a huge boost to the region’s current growth rate, which is roughly 275 girls per year.
According to USA Hockey, nearly 83,000 females were registered players last season. That figure is up 44 percent from 2006-07, when Kessel played on her first full-season girls’ team as a high school freshman at Shattuck St. Mary’s.
To have those role models and be out on the ice wit them, that makes a huge difference
– Amanda Kessel
As hockey participation grows, so should the options available to girls trying the sport for the first time. High-end youth players, like Kessel was, may thrive on a top-tier travel team or playing with boys. But what about everyone else? “Girls want to be with the girls, for the most part,” said Marvin Minkler, hockey director of Brewster Ice Arena in Brewster, N.Y., one of the initiative’s affiliated rinks. “So the Rangers started this program to really capture that girls’ market, make it comfortable for the girls to be out there in a hockey setting and get them up and running.”
Kessel, a state champion with the Madison Capitols bantam boys’ team in 2006, said she didn’t have many female friends growing up because girls were never on her team. She found value in playing with other girls when she arrived at Shattuck, forming bonds that have remained ever since. “It allows girls to have more confidence in themselves and in the sport,” Kessel said. “And maybe keep them in it longer than they would’ve otherwise.”
There are a few reasons Kessel is the ideal ambassador for a project aimed at growing girls’ hockey. For one, she’s about as decorated as a player can be: two-time Olympic medallist (one gold), three-time NCAA champion, three-time World Championship gold medallist and a two-time under-18 world champion.
She’s also motivated to set an example for the next generation. Kessel was six when the U.S. won gold in the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey tournament in 1998. Meeting those players, her heroes at the time, would’ve been a dream come true. She never got the chance. “It was really hard to get in contact with those who went before us,” said Kessel, who will travel to clinics at various rinks in the fall. “So I think out of anybody, I know that to have those role models and be able to see them and be out on the ice with them, that makes a huge difference.”
There’s another difference Kessel is trying to make, which pertains to her own career. After the Canadian Women’s League folded in the spring, she became one of more than 200 players who chose to sit out the 2019-20 season.
Kessel, who played for the Metropolitan Riveters of the National Women’s League last season – and was one of the highest-paid players, with an $8,000 salary – is fighting for a single, sustainable pro women’s league in North America. This isn’t the first time she’s taken a stand for the betterment of women’s hockey. In 2017, she and the U.S. women’s national team threatened to boycott the World Championship – which the U.S. was hosting – over wages and equitable support. Three days before the tournament began, they reached an agreement with USA Hockey – and then went on to win the gold medal.
As we’ve seen in recent years, progress for women’s hockey at the professional and international levels is slow and difficult. The same is true at the grassroots level. But it’s happening. And no one understands what it takes to foster that progress better than Kessel. “Not only using her recognition and her namesake, but using her path as an example will certainly be a draw for players,” said Nick Garofalo, hockey director at the Danbury Ice Arena in Danbury, Conn. “These girls can envision themselves as Amanda Kessel in 10 or 15 years.”