It has been an exciting year in women's professional hockey.
For the first time in history, post-collegiate female hockey players have the opportunity to play the sport they love professionally. Thanks to the newly formed National Women's Hockey League, women are finally able to make some semblance of a career via a $10,000-$25,000 salary. It's not a lot, but it's a start, and long overdue. As a result, many of the Canadian Women's Hockey League's finer talents have been snatched up, particularly in the Boston area, making for an equally competitive league.
While the more established CWHL has been more publicized and connected with National Hockey League teams in Canadian markets, the pay and intrigue of the New England-based NWHL has made it an equally viable option as the top women's league of the future. That said, the CWHL has stated that it will start paying players as soon as the 2017-2018 season, which should be enough to hang onto the league's remaining talent and attract new blood willing to play free puck for just one more season after leaving the college ranks.
However, will that commitment to future players by the Canadian women's league be enough to deter arguably the biggest free agent prize in either side of professional hockey from signing with the NWHL? That's a tough question, especially when you consider who that player is - Amanda Kessel.
At 24 years old, Kessel may be the best of a very talented brood. Her brothers, Phil and Blake, have both gone on to professional hockey careers, Phil being both a seven-time 20-goal plus and seven-time 50-point plus scorer with Boston, Toronto and now Pittsburgh. Even still, Amanda may be better, and it's hard to argue against it when you look at her stats and her play on the ice in particular.
In three full seasons with the University of Minnesota, Kessel continually improved with 50-point, 80-point and 101-point seasons for 97 goals, 231 points a plus-151 rating and a 1.88 point-per-game average in 123 games played. In her junior campaign, the Madison, Wisconsin native was named Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner, USA Hockey Bob Allen Women's Player of the Year, ACHA/CCM Hockey First Team All-American, USCHO.com Co-Player of the Year, WCHA Player of the Year, All-USCHO.com First Team and All-WCHA First Team. That is simply incredible, and just the icing on a collegiate career that has also seen her win national championships, WCHA Rookie of the Year and nearly every other women's NCAA hockey honor outside the goaltending position.
At the international level, Amanda has been just as dominant, collecting 10 goals, 30 points, a tournament career best 3.00 points-per-game average and a gold medal at the U-18 level. At Women's Worlds, Kessel has been nearly just as good with five goals, 18 points and a 1.80 points-per-game average. She also managed to help the United States to a silver medal finish in Sochi with three goals, six points and a plus-8 rating in five games, sustaining a serious concussion in the process.
After red-shirting during the Olympics, and sitting out the past season-and-a-half with concussion symptoms, Amanda is back - free of all symptoms - and ready to finish her collegiate career on a high note. What she does with the few remaining NCAA games available to her are inconsequential at this point. She has already proven her worth, and only needs to continue to prove that her injury history is indeed behind her. As she does so, representatives from both the NWHL and CWHL- as well as the unaffiliated Minnesota Whitecaps- are sure to take notice, which makes the upcoming off-season perhaps the biggest yet in women's professional hockey.
Two competing leagues in close proximity is not good for the growth of a fledgling professional sport. One will surely outlive the other, or the two will eventually become one - a likely outcome players in both leagues have admitted to desiring in recent months. The league that folds or merges could be largely determined by the direction Kessel picks should she decide to turn pro. If she is looking for a pay check anytime soon, the NWHL would be the way to go, especially when you consider so many of her national team teammates have jumped on board with the new league. What does that do to the CWHL?
It has the potential to hurt as much- if not more- than Hilary Knight's departure. A full four-year player with the University of Wisconsin, Knight had 143 goals and 262 points in 161 games for a 1.51 points-per-game average. Knight started her professional career playing for the CWHL Boston Blades, and has been the face of the women's professional game in recent years, combining great play with marketability. She defected to the Boston Pride in the NWHL, meaning that if Kessel were to also join the NWHL, the CWHL would miss out on two of the biggest stars in their sport.
Here's the thing, due to her unique health situation, Amanda is not eligible for the NWHL Entry Draft this off-season. The National league only drafts players heading into their senior season. However, she is still eligible for the Canadian league draft, which could certainly play into their advantage. That said, there is a $150 CDN registration fee for the draft - will Kessel put up the funds to participate? If not, she then becomes a free agent looking for the highest bidder, and that's when things get really interesting, especially when the NWHL's Connecticut Whale may hold the trump card in the form of Gophers senior Hannah Brandt.
The highest scorer in Golden Gopher Women's Hockey history - due largely to Kessel's absence from the program - Brandt, Minnesota's 2012 Ms. Hockey Award winner, has been Kessel's go-to pivot since 2012, and was drafted second overall in last off-season's inaugural NWHL Entry Draft. The Whale are already a heavy favorite for the 2016 Isobel Cup; a dynamic rookie duo of Brandt and Kessel could very well lead them to another one next season. Don't think the NWHL, Whale, Brandt or Kessel haven't been at least entertaining the idea.
Amanda will have her pick of 10 professional teams - the five Canadian league teams, four National league teams and the local Whitecaps - that are all sure to come knocking at her door. Regardless of her decision, there will be a winner and there will be losers and the game will be impacted in a very real way as the quality of play, and box office revenue, should see a significant increase for the winning bidder.
Perhaps the outcome in the very best interest of the women's game would entail a number of moves - which won't be easy and will take a lot of time, effort and cooperation from all parties involved - resulting in a 10-team women's professional super league including the Kessel-led Whitecaps and a relocated Boston franchise to a hockey-mad USA market like Chicago. Both leagues get major publicity, two new markets to explore and the biggest icon in women's hockey. It's a win-win situation for the CWHL, the NWHL, the Whitecaps, Amanda Kessel and the fans, but it's particularly a win for the young girls currently chasing their own dreams of one day playing professional hockey in a financially stable and profitable league, just like Amanda.