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Former Gophers star Amanda Kessel finally back with Team USA

United States forward Amanda Kessel (28) shoots the puck against Finland during women's hockey group A play Sunday, Feb. 11, during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre. David E. Klutho / USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, Amanda Kessel felt like a shell of herself.

Long gone were the nights she spent dominating on a hockey rink, replaced by miserable ones in a dark room watching television.

Concussions suffered within a few months of each other after the 2014 Olympic Games seemed to end hockey for Kessel, the former Minnesota Gophers star who won the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation's top women's college player.

Headaches were constant. She often would tell herself that she would return to her old self before long. But at night, she would stare at the ceiling and fear she'd never feel better. She had constant nightmares that she'd never skate again. It lasted nearly two full years.

"My life was so slowed down for those years," she said.

That's part of why she said the past two years have felt like "just a couple of months."

Sparked by a doctor visit and assurance that she's no more likely than before to suffer another concussion, Kessel returned to hockey nearly two years ago and has returned to her role as a leader on the U.S. women's hockey team, which opened the 2018 Winter Games with a 3-1 victory over Finland on Sunday, Feb. 11.

Memories of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are still vivid, she said. Despite six points in five games from Kessel, the U.S. lost in overtime to Canada in the gold medal game after blowing a 2-0 third-period lead.

"I have picture-perfect memories of that game and the moments afterward," Kessel said. "I'm just lucky that hopefully we'll have another chance. People don't get second chances very often."

Kessel's first second chance came when she started skating again with coach Brad Frost's Gophers women's hockey team in the fall of 2015, hopeful to take part in at least a sliver of her final season of NCAA eligibility.

She was cleared to join the team in February 2016, and promptly netted 11 goals in her final 13 games—including the game-winner in the 2016 NCAA title game—and finished as the second-leading scorer in Gophers women's hockey history.

The only player to produce more? Hannah Brandt, Kessel's Olympics roommate.

Brandt wasn't a part of the 2014 Olympics, so Kessel has spent late nights talking with her about the experience.

"I keep telling her, 'I'm so excited, because there's no better feeling. I can't wait for you guys to get there because it's all that it's made up to be and more,' " Kessel said. "It's a moment that you cherish and will remember forever."

Even after returning to the Gophers, Kessel wasn't guaranteed a spot on the 2018 Olympic team. She attended tryouts in August but didn't feel like the player who notched 101 points in 37 games as a junior with the Gophers in 2013. That took time, she said.

She scored 18 points in eight games in her first season with the New York Riveters of the National Women's Hockey League and began training with the U.S. team after that.

In April 2017, she helped the Americans beat Canada in the gold-medal game of the World Championships, producing six points in five games.

"Eventually, after I came back, I just started feeling better and better," Kessel said. "I was with the Riveters and had a good season there. And then the World Championships is when I felt back to my normal playing at the national level."

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