There are those whose face and eyes simply light up their environment — their happiness is contagious. New York Islanders prospect Rhett Rakhshani (pronounced “Rock-Sha-Knee”) is undoubtedly one of them.
After the final game of USA Team White against the Finns in Lake Placid at the recent USA Junior Team Evaluation Camp, he had a large smile.
“It’s fun here, it is always a pleasure to be with the best players in the country. You see where you stand with the top guys, said Rakhshani. “A lot of these guys know each other, we also meet new guys and we all have a good time hanging out with each other.”
Rakhshani was one of the best players of the tournament held from August 8-12, in which teams from Finland and from Sweden also took part. He tallied seven assists and was the tournament leading scorer along with American Phil Kessel (BOS).
“The skill level was about the same than at the Under-18 level, but the speed, the decision making and the strength were a lot higher here,” said the 5’10, 170-pound right winger.
Rakhshani said that he felt good out on the ice. “I could hang with the pace, but definitively needed a little adjustment. You’ve got to make sure that you always move on the ice and always avoid getting hit. It was fun though.”
Rakhshani is not big, but he is a very good skater, quick with very good hands. His main quality is probably his capacity to read the play very well and send the puck right on the tape of his teammates in motion.
Asked what is his best quality, he immediately replied, “My decision-making and my quickness too.”
He knows his strengths and what he has to do to compensate for his relative small body. “I’m not the biggest guy, I can move. If you always move on your feet and are fast on the ice, they can’t catch you.”
California kids can love hockey too
Rakhshani’s grandfather left the Persian region to take roots in California. A native of Huntington Beach in southern California, Rhett grew up at a stone’s throw away from the warm Pacific waters, a place where frozen ponds don’t exist. Rakhshani could have been a surfer or a scuba diver, or picked a popular sport like baseball.
He preferred instead to glide on roller blades. “I started playing at roller hockey when I was 5 years old. When I was 8 or 9, I began to play on ice,” explained Rakhshani.
“I never wanted to do any other sports when I started in hockey. I love it so much.
“Even a kid from Huntington Beach, you know, can fall in love with hockey. I’m not the only one either. My buddy Cameron Cepek, who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens this year too, is also a native of Huntington,” said Rakhshani with a large smile.
It is said that the passage of Wayne Gretzky with the L.A. Kings from 1988 to 1996 had a great impact on the popularity on hockey in California. Luc Robitaille, who spent close to 20 years with the Kings also contributed a lot in the development of hockey.
According to the most recent USA Hockey statistics, there are about 17,000 registered youth ice hockey players in California compared to only 2,200 in 1985-86.
Rakhshani played seven years for the California Wave. This team was formed in the mid-1990’s by former CHLers Jack Bowkus and Jeff Turcotte, the younger brother of Alfie who played 112 games in the NHL.
The Wave’s hockey development program had a tremendous success. Since 2003, five of its alumni, including Rakhshani, have been drafted by NHL teams – Robbie Earl (TOR), Brett Sterling (ATL), Cameron Cepek (MON) and T.J. Miller (NJ). Several players from the Wave have received scholarship from NCAA division teams and more than 10 have been selected by WHL teams.
Southern California teams had also a great success at the national level. In April 2006, the California Midget AAA Wave won the 2006 USA Hockey 16-and-Under Tier 1 National Championships in Rochester, NY. The California bantam AAA Wave team also won the national title in the 14-and-Under Tier 1 category in 2004.
At this year’s USA National Championships, a team from southern California, the L.A. Selects, also won the National Championships in the 14-and-Under Tier 1 category in Rochester, NY.
The future looks also bright as the L.A. Selects 12-and-Under Tier 1 team were the runner up in the 2005 USA Championships.
“Hockey is getting a lot better in California. There are a lot of talented kids and good coaches,” said Rakhshani.
“I definitely think that the skill level is really high there. There are good hockey players everywhere, all over the country. [California born players] can be good hockey players too, we are competitive,” observed Rakhshani.
From southern California to Michigan
In 2003-04, Rakhshani recorded 121 points in 56 games with the Midget AAA California Wave.
He was then invited to join the Under-17 team in the U.S. National Development Team Program. So he traveled 2,000 miles away from home in the direction of Ann Arbor, Mich.
“At first, it was hard in Ann Arbor, just adjusting to a different area which I was not familiar with, adjusting to play with the top kids of the country on the National Team. But hockey, you’ve got to adjust to and that was not that bad,” said Rakhshani.
“The biggest thing for me to adjust to was the weather. ’m so used to this wonderful weather everyday in California. Suddenly, during the winter in Ann Arbor, I was freezing my butt off every morning when I woke up and when I went to bed. That was really hard.”
The 16-year-old at that time had an atypical education as well as he had been home-schooled by his mother.
But Rakhshani had success in the NTDP program. He was an assistant captain with the USA Under-17 team. He had 49 points in 59 games that year and was his team’s second best scorer, just behind the 2007-eligible Pat Kane.
Last season, Rakhshani accumulated 43 points in 63 games with the U.S. U-18 Team. He scored a key goal in the final game of the IIHF U-18 World Championship in Sweden, tying the game 1-1 en route to U.S. gold medal win over Finland.
After two successful years in the NTDP program, Rakhshani was ranked 56th among the North American skaters by the Central Scouting Services. He was the only Californian invited to the NHL’s annual combine in Toronto a few weeks prior to the 2006 Entry Draft. He was then drafted by the Islanders in the fourth round, 100th overall.
“I was just excited to go anywhere,” he said. “Just so much excited to be part of that (the Entry Draft), just to be able to pursue my dream and get the opportunity to do that.
“Getting drafted is a first step in that process.”
The next step will be to join the University of Denver for the next season and hopefully fly again to Sweden at the end of December, this time to participate in the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.