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The Natural

Michael Rasmussen started playing hockey later than most of his contemporaries, but his athletic abilities could carry him much further.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Talent can be a blessing or a curse. It’s what is done with those natural abilities that will provide a measure of a man.

A musician may be blessed with a good ear, the ability to play different instruments or sing with perfect pitch, but it means nothing if the song is noteworthy only for its cacophony.

A mechanic could be able to fix any number of devices and possess the ability to dismantle and reassemble almost anything, but it’s all for naught if he struggles to apply his skill in his work.

An athlete might master multiple sports and be able to excel at whatever game he chooses to play, but it matters little if there is no inner drive, no determination to do whatever work is necessary to excel.

Michael Rasmussen might not have the talent to carry a tune or carry a wrench, but he might have the ability to carry a team. Perhaps not yet, but given his quiet intensity and tenacity, he is determined to show that the Red Wings were right when they selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

At 6-foot-6, he is head-and-shoulders above many, but it’s the size of his heart that may ultimately determine where he stands. And if past performance is any indication of future success, he is going to be an outstanding addition in Detroit.

Rasmussen played a lot of sports growing up in British Columbia. It didn’t matter if it was baseball, basketball, soccer or track, he was determined to be the best – and have fun doing it. “I played whatever my friends were playing,” he said.

Surprisingly, he didn’t play hockey until he was age 10. With two older sisters, Jaclyn and Samantha, the son of Denise and Paul Rasmussen did not grow up in a hockey family. Growing up in Canada, he started skating as a little boy but never had any interest in playing ice hockey until he was older.

“When I finally played hockey, I found that I enjoyed it and had fun, so I kept it going,” he said.

Rasmussen played in the Semiahmoo Minor Hockey program until bantam, at which time he moved to Penticton to play for the Okanagan Hockey Academy. He spent two seasons in Penticton, roughly about five hours east of Vancouver, before moving on to junior hockey in the form of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

“When I left home, that’s when I started to concentrate on hockey,” he said. “It was the biggest step in my hockey career and the most important one, too. Moving out of the house was a great experience for me. I learned to take care of myself, but I also had great support from my billet family who helped me grow up.”

As much as he enjoyed all sports, there was something special about hockey that separated it from the others.

“Obviously when I moved out of the house to continue playing, I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life, plus the fact that I always had fun doing it. For the first couple of years, I wasn’t thinking that way at all. I was just focused on hanging out with my buddies and having fun.”

By the time he headed to the Kennewick, Wash.-based Tri-City Americans, Rasmussen knew it was going to take a lot of hard work to get where he wanted to eventually be.

“In juniors, I think you learn to grow up and become a young man,” he said. “The WHL does a good job of providing its players with the kind of good competition that allows you to develop and grow.”

Rasmussen scored 32 goals in only 50 games as a 17-year-old before the Red Wings showed their faith in him by using their first-round pick in the 2017 draft, which he attended in Chicago with his parents and sisters.

“All year I was working hard to get picked,” he said. “Once the order came up, I was hoping the Wings would take me, so it was an awesome feeling to hear my name. It was something I’ll always remember.”

Although he grew up a fan of the Vancouver Canucks, Rasmussen envisioned Detroit as the perfect place to further develop his skills.

“I was excited to go to an Original Six team, plus there have been so many greats who have come through over the years and won so many Cups,” he said. “I’m excited about the future.”

Rasmussen signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Red Wings but returned to the Tri-City Americans for one more season. Named captain of the team for the 2017-18 season, he scored 31 goals in 47 games before breaking his wrist.

“Being named captain was a huge honor,” he said. “It was one of the biggest honors of my career and life so far. We had a good team and had a good season, so being captain made it even more special.”

Rasmussen came back for the playoffs and showed tremendous resolve, tallying 16 goals and 17 assists for 33 points in 14 games. “Just being healthy and feeling close to 100 percent allowed me to play my game and enjoy success,” he said.

He made the Red Wings’ opening night roster last season. “I’ll never forget the thrill of making the team,” he said, recalling the excitement he felt during his NHL debut on Oct. 4, 2018. “My whole family was there for the first game.”

It also marked the first NHL game for Dennis Cholowski, Christoffer Ehn and Filip Hronek. “I didn’t have too many nerves – hockey is hockey. I was feeling excitement more than anything, just the anxiousness to get going,” Rasmussen said.

“You experience so many emotions because you work so hard to get there and experience that moment. Not many people get to make it to the NHL, so you try to put it in perspective and have fun with it.”

Rasmussen struggled to get his name on the scoresheet early in the season, but he seemed to relax once he learned that the Red Wings were going to keep them on their roster for the balance of the season rather than send him back to his junior team. After recording one assist in his first nine games, he scored five goals in the next nine.

“With my game, it’s not all about getting crazy with points,” he said. “I think I do other things well, whether it’s checking or playing sound defensively. As a younger player, you have to learn to adapt and contribute in different ways.”

Rasmussen recorded eight goals and 10 assists in 62 games during his rookie pro season.

“Whenever you play a full NHL season, there are many things you can take from it and I was happy to take all those experiences, both positive and negative,” he said. “The only way you grow as a player and as a person is through experience, and overall I think it was a good year.

“It was definitely eye-opening. It’s a hard league, a tough league to score in, so the biggest thing is patience and to keep working hard every shift. I’m glad that I got that year under my belt and I now have those experiences to lean back on.”

Rasmussen had hopes of making the team again this year, but the Red Wings want him to play center and the organization felt getting more ice time and more quality minutes in the AHL would ultimately benefit his development more than a limited third-line or fourth-line role in Detroit.

“It’s obviously your goal to make the team and help the big squad play well and win games,” he said. “I just took (being sent down) as a positive and learning experience. I wanted to come down here and grow my game to become the best player I can be.”

Rasmussen tallied nine points (2G, 7A) in the Griffins’ first 10 contests this season, including five points (2G, 3A) in the first three games, before a back injury forced him to sit out the next two months.

“It was tough,” he said. “I had a good start, I was working hard and I was getting my hopes up. But injuries are part of the game and while it’s disappointing and frustrating, it is what it is. It’s life.”

Rasmussen went to Detroit to rehab his back with the help of the Red Wings’ training staff. He finally returned to the Griffins’ lineup on Jan. 10 and scored a pair of goals a night later.

“It’s difficult when you sit out a couple of months, but I’m starting to find my game and to play good,” he said. “I’ve got to keep working and finding my groove so I can get back to playing hockey the way I know I can play.”

He’s happy to be back playing center, which is the position he primarily played before turning pro.

“The biggest things are to be good defensively and play smart positionally,” he said. “Faceoffs are huge and I need to be like a third defenseman down low. I need to find my way to the front of the net and not get boxed out or pushed away. Being a net-front presence is an important part of my game.”

Some scouts had projected Rasmussen as the next Tomas Holmstrom, and he is humbled by the comparison.

“He was a little before my time, but I know he was one of the best,” Rasmussen said. “I’ve tried to watch clips of him, but there are not a lot of highlights out there. But I know he was the best at tipping pucks and getting rebounds and all the tricks of the trade you use when you play in front of the net.”

Instead, Rasmussen has studied clips of guys like Rangers forward Chris Kreider and Islanders forward Anders Lee, among others. “You can usually pick one guy from every team,” he said. “Anthony Mantha has a great shot, but he’s really good in front of the net. So is (Tyler) Bertuzzi.”

Ultimately, he knows that it is important that he use his 6-foot-6 frame to his advantage to help the Griffins win games and qualify for the playoffs.

“It’s all about using my size and skating ability to continue to grow as a player,” he said. “When we’re playing our game, with our systems and structure, we have a good team. We have a good mix of young players and veterans here, and I’m definitely happy to be a part of this group.”

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