It’s no secret that 6-foot-5 defenseman Mike Rathje had a significantly large presence on the ice. But many may not know that he’s also interested in big business.
Since retiring from the National Hockey League in 2009, “Rat” has turned his focus on his three downtown San Jose restaurants and a Canadian-based company he owns.
Rathje started his career as the third overall pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft and was the first selection of the San Jose Sharks. Because he was selected as a Western Hockey League Eastern Division Second Team All-Star defenseman and finished second in the WHL for the Top Draft Prospect Award, the Sharks and their fans had high expectations, albeit not for the same reasons.
Rathje made his debut in 1993-94, played in 47 games and scored 10 points for San Jose. But everyone expected him to be the second coming of Chris Pronger as a big, physical and nasty presence. Those expectations proved to be too much for the rookie and he spent part of the year with San Jose’s top development affiliate in Kansas City.
“Fans expected him to kill people because of his size and presence on the ice,” Radio Play-by-Play Announcer Dan Rusanowsky said. “But really, his strength was subtle. He was a very solid finesse player.”
Many speculated Rathje’s talent wasn’t the issue, but merely his mental maturity and confidence which he could develop while playing in the International Hockey League. Early injuries also hurt his growth. Sharks management worried Rathje was under too much pressure from the high expectations and psyched himself out. The IHL, they believed, allowed him to experiment and make mistakes without being under the big league microscope.
“My career with the Sharks started out pretty rough due to injuries,” Rathje said. “I really had to sacrifice in order to get into good condition — (time with) family, friends, everything. But eventually the work did pay off.”
Rathje played well in Kansas City and was rewarded for his inspired play by being named alternate captain. He scored 17 points (six goals and 11 assists) in 36 games.
Rathje had the ability to get involved in the attack, but was prized primarily for his defense. He helped get the puck out of the zone quickly by either carrying it out and making a smart pass, or by making the safe move and chipping the puck off the boards.
As he continued to play in the NHL, Rathje gained more mental toughness and learned how to be more physical. He participated in offseason programs run by then-Strength and Conditioning Specialist Steve Millard designed to build mental and physical strength by adding self-confidence. The training included skating, weights and boxing.
“He started playing against the best players from the other team,” Rusanowsky said. “He was always in position and incredibly hard to move or get around.”
In 1999, Rathje was awarded the Ironman Award, given to the player whose grit, determination and perseverance allowed him to lead the club in games played.
During the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Rathje led the team in blocked shots and takeaways during the conference quarterfinals vs. St. Louis and the semifinals against Dallas.
In 2003-04, Rathje’s penalty killing skills became more noticeable. He played a large role in the Sharks improved play, placing first at home by blocking 91 percent of opponent shots on goal and sixth in the NHL by blocking 85 percent overall.
By his last season with San Jose in 2003-04, not only did Rathje become the Sharks all-time leading scorer among defensemen, he was also the longest tenured Shark. He also played in more Sharks Stanley Cup Playoff games than any other player on the team. In fact, Rathje played in the postseason every year the Sharks had participated. Only 12 NHL players had served their current team longer than Rathje had on the Sharks.
Although Rathje was considered one of the most vital players to the Sharks defense during his time in San Jose, some fans wished he had a more physical game.
“I didn’t really care that fans wanted me to hit more,” Rathje said. “There are guys out there who want to be more physical, but my job was to keep pucks out of the net. When I got into my game, I played good defense.”
As Rathje continued to play, he played a large role in mentoring younger players. He taught rookies like current Colorado defenseman Tom Preissing (who debuted with San Jose in 2003-04) that there’s more to the game than just the physical fundamentals.
“Most of the skills were there, so I taught him more of the mental side of the game,” Rathje said. “You should only focus on what you can control. The skills follow once you can get control of your head.”
After spending his first 11 seasons with the Sharks, Rathje signed with the Philadelphia Flyers following the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Shortly into his second season, however, Rathje was placed on Injured Reserve because of chronic back and hip problems.
Rathje recently returned to San Jose with his wife and four kids. He was smart enough to lay a foundation for a post-hockey career. Rathje is currently part owner of three local restaurants: Tres Gringo’s, San Jose Bar and Grill and the Voodoo Lounge. He also operates a business in Calgary that acts as a moving facilitator for oil companies.
“I had many ups and downs in my hockey career,” Rathje said. “But overall, I really enjoyed my time on the Sharks.”