When I was in high school trying to decide which college I should attend, both athletics and academics factored into my choice.
I wanted to continue playing hockey, as I had been skating since the age of 4. I was a member of the Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club and had earned an invite to the USA Hockey Women’s National Festival my senior year, which is a weeklong event for the top players in the country, so I had offers to play at a few different schools.
But at the time – and this still essentially remains the case – the only real playing opportunity for women post-college was the national team, and I knew that wouldn’t be an option for me. So I decided to focus more on academics, attending Michigan State University because of their journalism program.
However, that didn’t mean I knew what area of hockey I ultimately wanted to work in – I just wanted to remain in the sport I loved so much. Luckily, one of my professors set me up for a job shadow with the Detroit Red Wings. That led to an internship in their publishing and new media department, which led to my dream job with the Penguins.
I was fortunate that I was in a position that I could really hone in on my goal, but what about the women who DO make the national team and spend years focusing on training and competing before eventually transitioning to their post-playing career?
That’s what makes Amanda Kessel – professional women’s hockey player and Team USA Gold Medalist – becoming the inaugural participant in the New Penguins’ Executive Management Program such an exciting prospect.
It will offer candidates, with a focus on women and minority athletes, a one-year opportunity to work alongside executives within the organization’s partnership, marketing, communication and broadcast departments, as well as hockey operations. It will consist of a rotation to expose participants to all aspects of the sports business, and includes graduate school educational and community service components.
“I think with my background and coming from a playing career into this, it’s a perfect transition to being exposed to everything,” Kessel said. “Because as a lot of athletes know, it’s tough. You don’t know exactly what path you want to take to get there, or what path is best. So this program gives me the opportunity to find my way.”
And that doesn’t necessarily need to be in coaching, something that Kessel hasn’t been overly passionate about, or in management, even though that would be her ultimate dream to join women like Cammi Granato (Vancouver Canucks assistant GM) and Krissy Wendell -Pohl (Pittsburgh Penguins amateur scout) who are paving the way.
“Maybe there’s something else that I end up liking, or somewhere that I’m needed, or something that I’m better at,” Kessel said. “So I think this is kind of the perfect opportunity to explore all of my passions.”
Video: Amanda Kessel speaks with the media
And from the Penguins perspective, president and CEO David Morehouse had seen similar types of programs at successful Fortune 500 companies like PNC and Medtronic that brought in high-achieving applicants who had been identified as people who could eventually hold top-level positions. He felt that not only should the Penguins adopt that same approach – they needed to add the element of diversity and inclusion as well.
“Any organization, any management group that has people that are different who think differently, is a stronger organization with stronger management,” Morehouse said. “Our new executive management program gives unprecedented access to women and minorities to attain permanent, front-office executive positions in hockey and other professional sports.”
Morehouse couldn’t think of a better candidate to kick off the program than Kessel, who has put together an absolutely exceptional career. After winning three Division I NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports management, she represented the United States at three Olympic Winter Games and multiple other tournaments.
Kessel also dealt with an incredible amount of adversity after suffering a concussion at her first Olympic Games in Sochi 2014. She wasn’t able to play for two years, and thought she may never play again. But Kessel was eventually able to return to the ice and recovered in time to rejoin Team USA ahead of the PyeongChang Games, where she helped the Americans win their first gold medal in 20 years in 2018.
Most recently, the 30-year-old forward won a silver medal at Beijing in February before appearing in the Rivalry Rematch game between the United States and Canada at PPG Paints Arena in March. She’s not yet ready to hang up the skates, saying that she’s still training and leaving everything open. But this was an opportunity that Kessel just couldn’t pass up, because she knows the end will come at some point.
“We went after Amanda; we signed our second Kessel,” Morehouse said with a grin. “And she is well on our way to a management track in sports. She has the experience, drive, and education to be a fantastic front-office executive in professional sports, and we are honored to welcome her to Pittsburgh.”
The city has held a special place in Amanda’s heart for a long time, with her brother Phil winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships here.
“He had a great time with the Penguins, and that’s really where I was first exposed to them and realized what a great program they have here,” she said. “But I think he’s just super excited for me and he thinks I’m very deserving of the opportunity, and excited to see my future.”
The future of women’s hockey continues to get brighter, as more girls are playing the game. And the more they can see someone like Amanda in a role like this can only inspire the next generations to come, so they know that their time in the sport doesn’t have to end when they’re finishing college or the Olympics.
“I think a mentorship program like this that the Penguins are providing for Amanda could potentially be something that is built upon across the league moving forward,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “There’s so many different aspects of the business, but I think the common denominator of the business is the passion for the sport. So I think it’s terrific. I think it’s a great opportunity to continue to grow women’s hockey and their respective participation in the sport moving forward.”