When Jordan Staal
was helped off of the ice on Sept. 23 in Buffalo, it was a crushing blow to the Carolina Hurricanes’ season. But for one prospect trying to prove he belonged in the NHL, it opened up a window of opportunity.
At just 21 years old, Victor Rask was already trending toward making Carolina’s opening game roster. But with the injury to Staal, he was suddenly thrust into a significant role as the team’s second-line center.
Rask took hold of the opportunity and then some, turning into perhaps one of Carolina’s biggest surprises in 2014-15. The Leksand, Sweden native has played in 78 games for the Canes, becoming just the sixth rookie in Hurricanes history to hit the 30-point mark. He ranks 10th among NHL rookies with 33 points (11g, 22a) and second among rookies in faceoff percentage (51.5%). Rask is also one of five Hurricanes rookies to score 10 or more goals in a season since the team’s relocation to Raleigh.
“Coming into the season I wasn’t expecting too much,” Rask said. “I just wanted to come in here and show what I can do. I got a couple of chances in the preseason games and thought I played good. Then unfortunately Jordan got hurt and you know someone’s gotta play in his spot, and I think I did a pretty good job just taking the chance and so far, so good.”
It was just seven months ago that Rask was in Traverse City, MI, at the NHL Prospects Tournament hosted by the Red Wings. There, he started making an impression on the Hurricanes’ new coaching staff. Rask finished the tournament with nine points, including a game-winning goal in overtime against the New York Rangers.
“I got to see him play twice in Traverse City, and I really had a lot of respect for the way he played the game properly,” head coach Bill Peters said during training camp. “He’s a smart Swede, a good, reliable two-way player with skill. I think he’s got a real bright future.”
Traverse City was also a turning point for Rask’s own confidence, proof that a summer of hard work was paying dividends.
“In Traverse City, I had a good tournament,” he said. “I think I played with Brock McGinn and Tolchinsky, they’re both really good players so it’s pretty easy to play. I just had a good feeling after the tournament and coming into training camp and preseason, so I think Traverse City was huge for me.”
He carried that confidence into Carolina’s training camp, where his new teammates took notice.
“Rasker obviously made a bit of a splash with us out at camp. No one necessarily thought he would come in and put himself in the position that he’s in right now,” Justin Faulk said. “We hadn’t seen him play an NHL game, but he had a great training camp. It’s nice to see young guys having success.”
Like the Carolina’s own season, Rask’s rookie campaign got off to a slow start, as he adjusted to the NHL and a new coaching staff. It’s no coincidence that Carolina’s season improved once he started finding his game.
Rask’s first NHL goal came on November 2 in the Canes’ 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He would add three more points over the next three games, and Carolina would earn points in each of those contests. That’s a trend that has continued all season long – the Hurricanes are 17-5-5 in games in which Rask registers a point.
Rask, who turned 22 on March 1, was drafted by the Hurricanes in the second round, 42nd overall in the 2011 NHL Draft. His hockey career began 19 years earlier in his hometown of Leksand, Sweden.
“Everything was hockey there. Where I come from it’s always been hockey, hockey,” he said. “I think the first time I skated was when I was three years old and I’ve loved hockey since then.”
At age 18, Rask left Sweden to follow his dream of playing professional hockey. He made the 4,000 mile journey from Leksand to Calgary to play in the Western Hockey League for the Calgary Hitmen.
Rask says leaving home to play in Calgary played an important role in helping him to realize his NHL dreams.
“I think it helped me a lot,” he said. “The whole Calgary Hitmen organization is really professional and really good – so all the coaches and the guys that were there helped me a lot I think. I had a lot of fun those two years I spent there.”
Distance hasn’t stopped the Rask family from following Victor’s journey to the NHL.
“My mom and dad and sister came for the first game. Then my mom and dad came for the dad’s trip, and my sister was here before we went on the road trip and she was here for like two weeks,” he said. “It’s fun. You’re without them for so long, but I’m kind of used to it now so it’s part of my life right now, but it’s fun to have them come over and see how my life is over here.”
Rask said he especially enjoyed having has dad join him for the Canes annual Dad’s Trip to Nashville on January 6.
“It was fun. My dad, I think he's watched every game this year. He stays up all night watching,” he said. “It was really fun for him to come over, he likes hockey a lot. He’s always been there for me so it’s obviously to have him along on a road trip.”
Being 4,000 miles away from home can take a toll on a 22-year-old, but Rask knows that it is part of the sacrifice of playing hockey in the NHL. He’s had plenty of help adjusting to life in the NHL from the team’s veteran players, including Jordan Staal and Jay McClement, who Rask sits in between in the locker room.
Having one of his countrymen around hasn’t hurt either.
“Obviously to have Elias here, a Swedish guy, it’s been helping a lot and he’s a really good guy on and off the ice,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to play with him and we have a few young guys here on the team, so it’s fun to have a few young guys here.”
After shattering expectations and having a breakout rookie season, how does the 22-year-old stay grounded?
It’s simple – by playing the game he loves and having fun.
“It’s obviously hard when we don’t have the success that we wanted, but you’ve always got to remind yourself that hockey is like the best thing,” he said. “I love hockey so I just have to remind myself of that. For me this is a dream playing in this league. It’s been a fun year still for me.”