Amanda Kessel skates away with the NWHL's highest salary

After nearly two years away from hockey, Amanda Kessel returned in February and hoisted the NCAA championship trophy in March. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

In less than a year, Amanda Kessel has gone from a concussion-ravaged college star with an uncertain future on the ice to the highest-paid player in the fledgling National Women's Hockey League.

Even Kessel, the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award winner from the University of Minnesota, isn't quite sure how that happened.

"Almost impossible," she said. "If eight to ten months ago, somebody said I'd be playing college hockey this year and then play in the NWHL the next year, I wouldn't have believed them."

Yet there was Kessel, on a conference call with reporters Monday, the day after agreeing to a one-year, $26,000 deal with the New York Riveters. Kessel's deal beat by $1,000 the league-high salary Connecticut paid Kelli Stack, Kessel's U.S. Olympic teammate, last year in the league's inaugural season.

Kessel, who's 24 and expects to graduate this summer with a sports management degree, said she negotiated the deal herself to avoid paying a percentage to an agent.

"With the limited amount of money you do make, it's tough to give that away to somebody, to be completely honest about it," she said. "I didn't think it was quite necessary at this point."

The return of Kessel, the 2012-13 NCAA scoring champion and one of only four players to post 100 points in a season, to the Golden Gophers after almost two years of post-concussion issues made for one of last season's most heartwarming stories in women's college hockey.

A right wing, Kessel suffered a concussion during a Team USA scrimmage before the 2014 Olympics but was cleared to play in Sochi. Several weeks after the Games, Kessel said her symptoms -- nausea, fogginess, headaches and sensitivity to light -- returned.

Rest and alternative treatments offered limited relief. Kessel made little progress until seeing renowned concussion specialist Dr. Michael (Micky) Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center last summer. Collins recommended light physical activity, then gradually increased it.

By September, Kessel resumed light skating on her own. She rejoined the Gophers for practice in January and returned to play Feb. 5, picking up two assists in a 3-0 victory over North Dakota.

"I never would have come back to hockey unless I was 100 percent healthy and had no concerns about my head," she said.

In 13 games, Kessel scored 11 goals and had six assists. Five goals came in the NCAA tournament -- a hat trick against Princeton in the quarterfinals, the tying goal in an eventual 3-2 semifinal overtime victory against Wisconsin and the winning goal in the 3-1 championship game upset of undefeated Boston College.

"She just added a whole 'nother dimension to our team," said Minnesota center Hannah Brandt, Kessel's linemate in 2012-13 and last season. "She's a great player, but she allowed us to switch up other things and make our team better overall."

That made Kessel a smooth-skating commodity again, attracting interest from both the NWHL and the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Kessel needed a place to play to convince USA Hockey she belongs on the 2018 Olympic team.

"We're happy that Amanda is once again healthy and doing what she loves," USA Hockey women's director Reagan Carey said in a statement Monday. "We've kept an open line of communication since the Olympics and we'll continue to do so in the months ahead as we determine what the next steps are for her potential involvement."

Though the CWHL plans to pay players for the upcoming season, Kessel preferred to stay in the U.S. No NWHL team held Kessel's rights, leaving her free to negotiate with anyone.

She chose New York, the league's worst and lowest-scoring team last season (4-12-0-2), for the opportunity to star right away. That Riveters coach and General Manager Chad Wiseman last week acquired the rights to Brandt, Kessel's friend and linemate at Minnesota, did not hurt.

"I didn't talk to every team," Kessel said. "I had limited contact with other teams/GMs. I had a lot of conversations with Chad, and I really liked his approach to the game. I could tell he's a real passionate guy, and I really appreciate that. That was a big draw for me.

"I knew Boston has a pretty stacked team. I had an internship in New York City a couple of years ago. I really loved the city and just I thought it would be a great team for me to join."

No current members of the women's national team have agreed to terms with NWHL teams for next season. The NWHL is being sued by former marketing officer Mike Moran for more than $200,000, the amount he said he invested to help the league get off the ground. Moran and Canadian entrepreneur Joel Leonoff are the league's only known investors; Commissioner Dani Rylan has never confirmed who provided the seed money.

"I don't know the exact details of what's going on," Kessel said. "That's up to them to handle. As a player, I need to support the league. It's a startup, and any startup doesn't really go smoothly. I'm here as a player to help any way I can."