It was a long overdue sight this morning at Honda Center, Rickard Lars Gunnar Roland Rakell cruising around the Ducks' home ice for the first time since Anaheim was eliminated in Game 7 by Nashville six months ago.
But no one was more relieved to have Rakell out there than Rakell himself, after the 23-year-old forward endured a lengthy contract battle with the Ducks, a significant injury and an immigration issue that all contributed to a harrowing summer.
"I've been waiting a long time to get back here and see the team again and be on the ice," Rakell said to reporters in a Honda Center hallway, sporting a noticeably shorter haircut and looming even taller than his 6-1 frame since he was still wearing the skates from this morning's workout. "I'm working towards getting to where I was before. I'm just very happy to be here."
Just getting back to Anaheim was a welcome respite for Rakell, who after months of contract negotiations between his agent Peter Wallen and the Ducks brass, finally signed a six-year deal on October 14. But it wasn't until there was a signed contract that Rakell could secure a P-1 visa, which is required for foreign-born members of professional teams who do not have permanent resident status to work in the United States.
While he awaited the visa process, Rakell did all he could to recover from surgery he had in the middle of last month to remove scar tissue resulting from an appendectomy he suffered in March. He rushed back from that injury to re-join the Ducks for the playoffs, where he had a goal and an assist in the seven-game series with Nashville. He was coming off the best regular season of his four-year Ducks career, scoring a career-high 20 goals and adding 23 assists.
The pain and discomfort this time around forced Rakell to miss representing Team Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey, and while he says he's feeling stronger, he's hesitant to rush back like he did last spring.
"I've been waiting a long time to get back here and see the team again and be on the ice. I'm working towards getting to where I was before. I'm just very happy to be here."
"It's different when it's playoffs," he said. "I was not gambling back then, but I really wanted to play. I wasn't feeling great, but there are a lot of guys with injuries in the playoffs. I learned a little bit from that, and I don't want to go back too quick now. I've been doing some good workouts in the gym, and I'm just trying to get as strong as possible and get my skating legs back."
While working out in his hometown just outside Stockholm, Rakell was so desperate to find someone to skate with, he latched on with a local junior team called Nacka. It just so happened to be his cousin's team - with a roster full of 14-year-olds.
"It's been a little tough finding a competitive team to play with back home, so I've mainly been skating by myself, and it's been pretty boring," Rakell said with a laugh. "I was happy they let me practice with them. I was just happy to be on the ice, and they were happy to have me there too. It didn't matter who I was playing with. I just appreciated everything a little bit extra after going through what I did. It was just a good time for me."
Asked if the Nacka players were intimidated by skating with an NHLer, Rakell replied, "They were super excited but also shy. They didn't say much. I think I was more scared of them than they were of me."
Still, Rakell's focus remained on getting back to Orange County, and the very day his visa came through, he was on a plane back to the States. "I was just waiting for it to come," Rakell said, "and get here as quick as possible."
Now he's working with the Ducks' medical staff on a quick, but reasonable, return to the lineup.
"It's just about conditioning now," he said. "Today I was pushing it pretty hard. I haven't skated with contact yet, but as soon as I can practice with the team a little bit and do battle drills, that's when I will get the real feel for how I'm feeling.
"It's whatever our trainers say, but I'm just anxious to get back and at least try. Bob [Murray] and Joe [Huff], our trainer, have been telling me I need to feel comfortable with coming back. I want to be as close to 100 percent as possible before I step into games. I can't say a time right now, but I'd like to come back as quick as possible, like everybody else."
With Rakell signed, all eyes turn to Anaheim's other contract holdout, young defenseman Hampus Lindholm, who just happens to be Rakell's close friend and roommate (though he says they will live in their own homes this season).
"I'm not getting involved in what he's going through," says Rakell, who has texted frequently with Lindholm throughout the past few months. "I just try and catch up with him and see how he's doing, stuff like that. I just wish he can come back as quick as possible, and I know all he wants to do is play too. He loves hockey. I don't have much to say about that, but like everybody else, including himself and Anaheim, we wish they can get a deal done."
As far as Rakell's own contract dealings, "I was hoping it wouldn't take that long, but it did, and I can't really do anything about it now. I'm happy it got done, and I'm super excited to be here for six more years. I couldn't be happier."