EdmontonOilers.com special correspondent Julie Robenheymer caught up with Oilers prospect Aapeli Rasanen at the National Junior Evaluation Camp.
Aapeli Rasanen (pronounced apple-LEE) has spent his entire career playing for his hometown team in Tampere, Finland. The 6', 200 pound forward started playing on Tappara's U20 team as a 16-year-old and, last season as a 17-year-old, was third on the team in points and a goal shy of the team scoring lead. This spring, he helped Finland win a gold medal at the U18 World Championship and was drafted in the sixth round of the NHL Draft this past June by the Edmonton Oilers. Rasanen will play this season with the Sioux City Muskateers of the USHL and hopes to earn a scholarship to play in the NCAA next season.
Rasanen is in Plymouth, Michigan for the National Junior Evaluation Camp featuring teams from Canada, Finland, Sweden and USA for consideration to represent their countries at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal. I had a chance to speak with him about his eventful spring and what lies ahead for him.
Q: What was your draft experience like?
Aapeli: I was in Buffalo and it was a really great weekend. I enjoyed watching the first round and seeing all the Finnish players - my friends - getting drafted and then on Saturday with the excitement of knowing my name was going to be called. It was a great experience.
Q: What were you doing when your name was called?
Aapeli: In fact, I just came from the toilet. (laughing) I had just taken my seat and ten seconds later my name was called. So, I had really good timing!
Q: Are you serious?
Aapeli: Yes…I almost missed hearing my name!
Q: I'm certainly glad you made it back in time! What happened next for you?
Aapeli: We flew straight from Buffalo to Edmonton and, the first week, there were practices before the camp started. Then we went to Jasper and that was an unbelievable place. We have nothing like that back in Finland. The scenery was great and I really liked meeting the staff and the other prospects, especially the college players - getting to know them and hearing about college life and playing hockey there. Basically, whenever I told a college player that I wanted to go to college, they would try to recruit me a little bit and tell me why their school was the best.
Q: Who gave you the best sales pitch?
Aapeli: Drake Caggiula. He really loves North Dakota. Really loves it.
Q: Well, you were in North Dakota for the U18 World Championship. They have an amazing facility…do they have a chance?
Aapeli: Yeah, they have a really, really good facility and they had just won a national championship. It was a good opportunity for me to see the possibilities, but I don't really have any idea where I want to go yet. I just made the decision to go to Sioux City instead of staying in Finland and I'll play there next year and see what the future brings.
Q: Why did you make the decision to play in the USHL?
Aapeli: I want to play in college and I would have had to play one more year of junior back in Finland to finish high school and be eligible to play. I can't play any pro games because of the NCAA rules for eligibility and I wanted a bigger challenge and the USHL is a better league with tougher games and the style of play on a smaller rink is what I need to develop. Another big factor in my decision was Eeli Tolvanen (2017 Draft Eligible), who I had played with at the U18 World Championship this spring, and he's already at Sioux City. Having him there helps smooth the landing in going there and hopefully we'll get to play on the same line again.
Q: When did you start to consider the USHL and the NCAA as your path to the NHL?
I started to think about it a year ago…maybe a year and a half ago…I thought it would be a good way for me. I want to be a great hockey player, but I also think it's important to get an education and that's not something you can do in Finland while still playing hockey at a high level. My parents have always been very supportive of me with hockey and school and in life and they thought it would be good for me too. Every player's goal is to play in the NHL someday and win a Stanley Cup and I think the sooner you can come over and get used to this style of game, the better it will be for your development. I got the opportunity to come over and I grabbed it. My mom says she will miss me, but I have to leave sometime if I want to play in the NHL so it might as well be now.
Q: Let's get back to the world (U18) championship, you helped Finland win gold at that tournament. What did you take away from that experience?
Aapeli: The gold medal was an unbelievable thing, but it was also important to develop a culture of winning and being able to win tough games against the best players in your own age group. The pressure was high. The pace was high. It was a great experience.
Q: Now you're hoping to earn a spot on the world junior team, how do you think this camp has gone for you?
Aapeli: The games have been really tough and we've had to adjust to the high pace. We have, of course, a real young team and the first two games were not what we wanted, but we just had to focus and we've been better in our last two games against Canada and USA. We are looking forward to playing Sweden and want to finish with another win.
Q: How do you think you can best contribute to the success of this team?
Aapeli: I'm a 200-ft player. I can contribute on both ends. I'm good at face-offs and am an all-around center. I'm more of a playmaker, but I am a bigger guy and should play more physical.
Q: What's next for you?
Aapeli: I will go back to Finland and finish my high school classes and take my finals in September and then report to Sioux City in early October. The North American game is much more physical than in Finland so I have to play more aggressive. That's why I wanted to come over here next year and get used to this style of game and the smaller ice. There are some small tactical things I have to improve and I have to get more speed and have better endurance and acceleration. That's what I'm focusing on this summer.