A brief pause in time was all it took for Jon Rheault to collect his thoughts on the matter. And, to his credit, he did not pull any punches in assessing his current situation.
"There's no two ways about it," the Providence College junior forward said with a light sigh. "This season has not gone the way we had hoped, or the way that I, personally, had hoped it would turn out. To this point, it's been pretty frustrating."
Coming off of a splendid sophomore campaign in which he established himself as one of the most feared snipers in Hockey East, Rheault (pronounced "Row"), looked forward to the opportunity to take his game to the next level this season, but a variety of factors have conspired to put a damper on the plans of the 2006 Flyers draftee (5th round, 145th overall).
Providence (5-15-1) struggled out of the gate this season, and has been mired near the bottom of the conference standings ever since. Rheault, despite flashes of brilliance, has subsequently struggled to regain his form from the previous campaign. Still, the 5'11'', 200-pound center has maintained a positive outlook and continues to search for a method to get his game back on track.
"Every hockey player, every athlete, faces adversity," the spirited 20-year-old reasoned. "It's how you deal with it that defines the type of competitor you are. Things have been difficult this season. I haven't been as consistent as I would like, and I realize that there are a lot of areas in which I need to improve.
"But I'm confident that we can still turn this thing around and get back on the winning side of things. For me, I know it's a matter of getting back to the basics, rediscovering the little things I did [last season] that I had success with. It's only a matter of time, as far as I'm concerned, but I honestly believe that we're just a big win or two away from breaking through."
Continuing a Family Tradition
As evidenced by his choice of words and the classy manner in which he carries himself at and away from the rink, Rheault is very respectful of the game and the opportunity he has to play at the collegiate level.
"It's an honor and a privilege," he explained. "Definitely something you can never take for granted. I've worked hard to get to this level, but it takes so much to get here. The commitment my family has always made to this passion is the main reason why I'm here."
Though his family has always called the New England area home, Rheault was actually born in Arlington, Texas, where his dad had temporarily moved the family due to an employment opportunity.
"I don't remember a thing about Texas, to be honest," Rheault said. "My family moved back to New Hampshire when I was three, so all of my childhood memories are there. And, of course, there are just a few more rinks and opportunities to play hockey up here in the Northeast than there are down there, especially 10 or 15 years ago."
Rheault found himself on skates by the time he was three and figures he was playing in an organized league by four. He never had any doubt that he would continue towards a career in hockey, as a deep-rooted passion for the game exists, quite literally, in his blood.
"Hockey is a huge tradition in my family," he continued. "Actually, I get it from both sides. My dad was a multi-sport athlete who played at Colgate in the late 1970s. On my mom's side, well, she had five brothers, and they all played. My grandfather played on the last undefeated team at Clarkson back in the mid-1950s, I believe.
"So, there were a lot of immediate influences and I guess it was pretty inevitable that I would eventually lace up the skates. I've been playing pretty much since I can remember and my passion for the game has only grown with age and experience."
With regard to other influences on his game while growing up, Rheault did not hesitate.
"Mario Lemieux," he quickly referenced. "He was simply the best. Those Pittsburgh Penguins teams of the early 1990s were fun to watch and were really dominant. That was probably the closest thing I ever had to a favorite team, because I've always enjoyed just following the NHL on the whole.
"Lemieux was a player I admired simply because I was in awe of how easy he made the game look. He did things that would leave you shaking your head every game. He's definitely a player I would say influenced me to some degree, and someone, obviously, I'd love to emulate.
"But, then again, who wouldn't?"
A Difficult Decision
By the time Rheault joined the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs of the EJHL at the start of the 2003-04 season, he was already being projected as a potential impact player at the NCAA level. Efforts to recruit his services, however, came down to the only two schools he was truly interested in – Providence and the University of New Hampshire.
"It was an extremely difficult choice," he explained. "Being from New Hampshire, that was the obvious choice. Most players who make a name for themselves up here go there, naturally. It's the home state team, the home state school. But, I visited Providence and fell in love with the campus and the area.
"What it really came down to, though, was my relationship with [Providence assistant coach] Dave Berard. I had known Coach Berard since I was 13. He coached me various times, at some of the selects festivals I competed in with Team New England, so there was a real comfort factor there."
After officially committing to Providence, Rheault proceeded to complete one of the most dominant seasons in EJHL history by leading the Jr. Monarchs to the league championship. He collected an astonishing 95 points (49 goals, 46 assists) during the regular season, ultimately earning him both the circuit's Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.
"I had a great experience playing in the EJHL for the Jr. Monarchs," he said. "It's a great preparatory league for the NCAA, and the [New Hampshire] program is first class all the way. Though I only played one season there, it really helped get me ready for the next level."
Rheault went to make a near-seamless transition to the collegiate level, turning in an outstanding freshman campaign at Providence in 2004-05. The then-18-year-old finished third on the Friars, and first among the team's first-year players, with an impressive 19 points (11 goals, 8 assists) in 36 games.
Along the way, Rheault was named Hockey East Rookie of the Week on two occasions, finishing eighth in the conference among freshmen in scoring.
"Jon turned in a very fine freshman season for us," said then-Providence head coach Paul Pooley after the campaign. "He's a real hard-working kid who certainly has the ability to be an elite player in this conference. The more experience he has, the better he's going to get."
Added Rheault: "My first season at Providence was a real learning experience, but I think I did well overall. It was a good start, a good foundation to build off of, and just a nice way to get my feet wet at the collegiate level."
Prior to the 2005-06 season, Pooley was replaced by Tim Army, a 1985 Providence grad and one of the top players in the history of the program. Army was best known in the hockey world for his nine-year stint as an NHL assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals (1993-2002), and a three-year tenure as head coach of the Portland Pirates in the AHL (2002-05).
A great deal of excitement surrounded Army's return to Providence. Among those expected to benefit most from the new coach's aggressive, offensive-oriented style was Rheault, who seemed poised to break out as an emerging two-way threat in his sophomore season.
"I was impressed by Jon's natural talent and the energy he brought to the rink every day when I took over the team last season," explained Army, who ended up guiding the Friars to a 17-16-3 overall record. "He's a very likeable kid with an engaging personality; an excellent student and a very hard worker on and off the ice.
"Jon had a good first half for us as a sophomore, but his game really took off as the season progressed. He took a great deal of initiative and maintained an aggressive attitude, which helped him create opportunities for himself. I think it's safe to say he was our best player, and was dominant at times over the second half of the season."
Rheault finished the season ranked third on the Friars with 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games, and was named co-winner of the Lou Lamoriello Award as the team's MVP, along with sophomore goaltender Tyler Sims.
"I felt I really came into my own last season," Rheault explained. "Certainly, Coach Army's guidance played a big role in that, as I immediately felt comfortable in his attacking system, which I feel is a great fit for the style I play. Coach Army really pushed me to continually drive and improve, and I believe that helped make me a much better player."
Rheault's emergence as an impact player for Providence made him a virtual lock to be selected at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, an honor that eluded him in his first year of eligibility the previous summer.
"I guess you could say that that was at least part of my motivation to have a big season," Rheault noted. "Being passed up in 2005 was a disappointment, to an extent, but I wanted to use it as a motivational tool. I was confident that I would be picked this latest time around, but was absolutely thrilled when I saw the Flyers listed next to my name after I refreshed the browser on my computer for the 150th time.
"It was a relief, and such a huge thrill. I remember getting a call from [Flyers scout] Steve Leach later that day, and being so excited that I couldn't remember most of the conversation. My cell phone rang non-stop for the remainder of the day, but the whole experience was such a blur. It was just great to be drafted, and I was very proud to be joining the Flyers organization."
Season of Struggle
Coming off of a breakout season with the Friars and riding a wave of positive emotion after his selection by the Flyers at the draft in June, big things were expected of Rheault heading into the 2006-07 campaign. He appeared to be on the cusp of earning "elite" status as a junior in Hockey East, but things have not yet worked out the way he had originally hoped.
Rheault, who Army designated as an assistant captain this season, has struggled mightily at both ends of the rink. He presently ranks third on the team in scoring. That's the good news. The bad news is that he has tallied only nine points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 20 games so far.
So, why the drop-off in production?
"It's difficult to pinpoint," he said. "If I could figure out the answer, perhaps I could apply a solution to our struggles as a team, as well as my personal struggles this season. But, there are definitely no easy answers. The only thing I can do is keep working, keep trying to learn and lead, and do my best out there."
Rheault has not scored a goal in eight games, his last marker coming in a 4-2 home win over UMass-Lowell on the day after Thanksgiving. Since then, he has registered just one assist, and has clearly been pressing to break out of his slump.
"Like the rest of the team, Jon is going through a real rough stretch," explained Army, whose squad currently sits at 4-9-1, good for seventh place in the nine-team Hockey East conference. "It's something all young players go through and have to battle out of. You can see he's squeezing his stick extra hard, and has been guilty in some cases of trying to do too much.
"You try to overcompensate in situations like this. It's only natural. From both a technical and mental standpoint, he's pressing. He's using his speed to get to the net, but isn''t following through. Subsequently, he sometimes gets frustrated and over thinks a given situation. We need him to just slow it down, get it back to basics, back to the foundation.
"It's easier said than done, but Jon certainly has the ability to pull out of this and get himself back on track. He's still maturing emotionally, and is looking for that positive balance. It takes time and, often, some major growing pains. We've seen good signs from Jon recently, however, and are optimistic that he's coming along."
Back to Basics
According to Army, the Providence coaching staff recently cut a tape for Rheault, featuring all of the goals he scored over the second half of last season. The idea, of course, was to highlight the things the talented junior was doing last season that he might be overlooking this year.
"He was very receptive to what we were showing him, and I think he fully understands our approach," explained Army. "Again, it's really a back-to-basics approach. It's a matter of reestablishing the player's foundation and working from there, touching on the things that worked in the past and integrating as many positive learning techniques as possible.
"Jon is a terrifically talented hockey player. He has a great deal of natural ability, and I strongly believe that he has the skill and mental makeup necessary to make it in the pro game. He's just not there yet, which, obviously, is why he's still here with us and not [in Philadelphia]."
Rheault remains optimistic that he can turn his season around, and help the Friars succeed in the postseason.
"Don't count us out yet," he warned. "We have a lot of work to do, no question. But we have a very strong, close-knit group here, and we certainly haven't given up on anything. Though the season has been a frustrating one, I can feel the tide beginning to turn a bit, and I've been feeling more and more comfortable in game and practice situations of late.
"Hopefully, it's one of those things where once I get a goal or two under my belt, I'll really be able to get going again and help the team. But, the main thing is not to get down on ourselves and keep skating with our heads up. We have to play smart and pay attention to the little things that coach mentions, but we all know we're capable of so much more."
At age 20, Rheault is technically now eligible to play in the AHL. However, he does not expect to leave early for the professional ranks.
"Things are always reassessed after the season, but, right now, I would have to assume that I'll be coming back to Providence for my senior season in 2007-08. My focus right now is really on helping the team get back into contention, but I guess there's always room to look to the future a bit.
"My ultimate goal, of course, is to make the Flyers roster after I leave Providence, but my chance for that will come. It's still a bit further down the line, and there are other things I need to be focusing my immediate attention on."
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren was asked earlier this season about his thoughts on Rheault, specifically his potential to ultimately suit up for the Orange and Black.
"Jon has a great deal of natural ability, and a good head for the game," he noted. "He is, by all accounts, an outstanding young man and a player on the rise at the collegiate level. He has struggled a bit, but those are the challenges players in his situation go through.
"He's an offensive player who still has some areas of his game to work on, but we feel he will continue to round himself out and improve overall. We're happy to have him in our system, and look for good things from him in the future."