ORLANDO, FLA – When mom and dad both have athletic talent, it is only natural for their children to inherit those genes. Sometimes the kid becomes an elite athlete who turns professional or makes a name for themselves on the international stage. Having three children make a name for themselves in the same sport can earn the family royalty status.
To the casual fan, Orlando Solar Bears defenseman Blake Kessel is just another hockey player. What they may not know that those who follow the game do is that he is one part of what arguably is the current first family of ice hockey in the United States.
Blake, 24, is the middle child of father Phil Kessel Sr. and mother Kathy. If the name sounds familiar, it should. His older brother Phil Jr. plays in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His younger sister Amanda plays at the University of Minnesota and will be on the international stage in February when she participates in the Winter Olympics as a member of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team.
“Big brother (Phil) obviously has been in the hockey world forever and little sister (Amanda) has been talented forever – she’s played boys hockey all the way up to high school,” Blake Kessel said after a recent Solar Bears practice. “It’s the older brother getting a lot of attention and then the younger sister does too, you kind of get lost in the shuffle but I wouldn’t be where I am without both of them in terms of their support and obviously learning a lot from Phil. My success has been their success in terms of anything that I’ve done, it all stems from them.”
Both mom and dad were athletes in college. Phil Senior was drafted by the Washington Redskins but an injury kept him from playing there. He did however fashion a career north of the border in the Canadian Football League for the Calgary Stampeders. The elder Kessels settled in Madison, Wisconsin where from the outset their children tried their hands at many different sports.
“All three of us kids got into sports really young. It wasn’t that we limited ourselves to hockey. We played all sports growing up,” Blake said. “We played baseball every summer all the way up to high school and touch football every once in a while and flag football. We played soccer also almost to high school. We got involved with a lot of other sports which was actually really kind of something that was great for us.”
The Kessels made a point of not pushing their children into one sport, instead allowing them to find the one that each child preferred. It was just one of the many things that Blake and his siblings are thankful for.
“I don’t know if they necessarily sat us down but they’ve been really supportive. I mean they’ve done everything for us,” Kessel said. “We’ve travelled around so much as three kids and two parents. We’ve been all over the place so for the time they’ve put in, we can’t thank them enough ever.”
Like a lot of younger brothers, Blake looked up to Phil. When Phil decided that hockey was his sport of choice, Blake wanted to follow in that direction. Not wanting to be left behind, Amanda gravitated to the rink as well.
Phil’s path took him through the U.S. national team development program squad in the NAHL for two seasons before he got an offer to attend the University of Minnesota. Blake cut his teeth in junior hockey with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the USHL and again like his brother received an offer to leave Wisconsin for college.
Blake’s scholarship took him east to play for Dick Umile at the University of New Hampshire. Playing in the high profile Hockey East conference was exactly what Blake wanted to do to take his game to the next level.
Phil and Blake also have another thing in common: both were selected in the NHL Entry Draft. Phil was the first round pick of the Boston Bruins in June of 2006 and one year later Blake was chosen by the New York Islanders in the sixth round. Blake said that he was surprised that his name was “on the radar” of any NHL team when Phil’s agent called him while he was working at a summer camp.
“Honestly it was a surprise. I had a tough year getting into a team actually. P.K. O’Handley and the Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL) was the team that took a chance on me. I learned a lot under him and I was able to have a good first year. I wasn’t even on the radar I don’t think at the beginning of the year so it was something that was pretty special for me and something I’ll always remember,” Kessel said.
Amanda, the youngest of the siblings, has cut her own niche in the hockey world. Her resume in 2013 included an NCAA championship with the University of Minnesota and a World Women’s championship in which she herself scored the gold medal winning goal against Canada. Her stellar collegiate play earned her the Patty Kazmaier award as the best women’s college hockey player in the country. The Hockey News also named her one of its Top 10 Players of 2013, joining the likes of Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Josh Harding and Alex Ovechkin at the pinnacle of the sport.
Amanda’s next stop will be the Olympics where she will try to earn a medal just as Phil did in 2010 in Vancouver. Blake said that at some point he too would like an opportunity to play on the international stage.
“It would be unbelievable to do that (play in the Olympics). I’ve been on a couple different teams like that but obviously nothing to that level,” he said. “I think that’s something that everyone growing up kind of looks at their country and sees the Olympics and it would be a huge honor to wear the red, white and blue and it is any that I have. Obviously that would be an ultimate goal.”
For now, Blake Kessel is focused on improving his game while playing for the Solar Bears. In eleven games with Orlando, Kessel has scored three goals and added six assists. He has become an important part of head coach Vince Williams’ special teams units and is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Kessel said that the opportunity to play again for Williams (the two were together in Trenton last year) and with some former teammates were major reasons that he wanted to be in Orlando.
“Obviously (playing for) Vince was a big part of the decision. I also played with six or seven of these guys on the team last year and became really good friends with them. I talked to them throughout the summer,” Kessel said. “It just so happened that this was where I was going to have to start off in the ECHL this year. I was definitely looking here to start the season but it didn’t quite work out at the time (he started in Bakersfield before being acquired in a trade). I’m really excited about this group. I’m really excited to see where this team can go this year.”
At the end of the interview, there was one question that still needed to be asked: which of the Kessel children is the best hockey player. Ever the joker, he jokingly started his answer that as the middle child he was the best but then offered the more thoughtful – and parental approved – response.
“Honestly in terms of all of it, I think Amanda is actually probably one of the better ones. I think it’s a toss-up between her and Phil obviously with their success,” he said. “I don’t think you really can compare the two too harshly because they play men’s and women’s but I think they both have found a lot of success at what they do. I’ll call it a tie so I don’t get in trouble.”
Amanda and Phil may be even but if they don’t watch out, Blake might just join them in the conversation – a conversation that won’t just be around the family dinner table anymore.
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