Kyle Rau is a long way from home.
After spending the last four seasons starring at the University of Minnesota, the Eden Prairie native admits that he is still adjusting to his new life outside the North Star State as he approaches the midway point of his first full season with the Portland Pirates.
“It’s my first time, pretty much, living outside of Minnesota,” said Rau, a third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2011. “I’ve been adjusting to that a little bit. It’s been nice, though, to live on my own and make my own decisions. It’s also nice not having any schoolwork or anything to worry about and being able to come home from the rink and relax.
“The biggest difference has really been away from the ice and getting used to the lifestyle. In college, there was always something to do away from the rink, but now I have a lot more free time. It’s been kind of a nice transition.”
While at Minnesota, Rau helped the Gophers win four regular-season conference championships for the first time in Minnesota's modern era along with four-straight NCAA tournament appearances and two runs to the NCAA Frozen Four.
A two-time captain, two-time All-Big Ten selection, and All-America honoree, Rau capped his college career ranked 18th on the Gophers’ all-time scoring list with 164 points (67-97-164) in 160 games.
So far, the 23-year-old Rau has found similar success in the American Hockey League as the talented rookie currently ranks first on the Pirates in goals (15) and third in points (22) in 33 games played.
“He’s come in with a good attitude and a good work ethic,” Pirates general manager Eric Joyce said. “He’s very good with the puck around the net and our offense really tries to generate chances in front of the net. He’s been very good at putting the puck home. He’s an incredibly hardworking kid that has taken advantage of some of the opportunities presented to him, and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.”
Standing at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, Rau’s biggest adjustment in transitioning from collegiate to professional hockey has been learning to play beyond his size. He prides himself on scoring goals from around the net and is often forced to navigate between much larger opponents to do so.
“I think a big difference is the size of everyone,” said Rau, who towers only over 5-foot-6 Rocco Grimaldi on the Pirates roster. “During pre-game skate I always like to look over and see who is on the other team, and it seems like everyone is always way bigger than me. In college there were always a couple of guys that were my size.”
Rau, however, doesn’t see his size as a handicap.
“My size is what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but I try to turn it into a positive. I just try to get lost on the ice and try to hop around from spot to spot and use my quickness to skate around the big guys. I’ve been trying to turn what people say is a negative into a positive.”
Never discouraged by his stature, Rau takes pride in disrupting the game of bigger opponents. He isn’t afraid to be physical and rarely shies away from contact or a tough battle along the boards. In fact, on many nights, his bruises will often outnumber his shot total.
“You’ve got to credit the scouts for finding the kids that want to put the time in,” Joyce said of Rau’s work ethic. “It’s all about how bad you want it. It’s up to our scouts to find guys that want it more than other guys.”
One of several talented forwards in Florida’s burgeoning prospect pipeline, Rau has already witnessed a number of his Pirates teammates be rewarded for their hard work with a spot on the Panthers this season. And although his time has yet to come, Rau believes that another change of address could be in his future if he works hard enough.
“It definitely gives you hope,” said Rau. “Not only are they going up, but they’re performing well and showing that they belong up there. It gives you hope to know that the process here in Portland is working and will get you where you want to go.”