Medicine Hat, AB – For fourth year Tiger forward Mark Rassell, his 2016-17 season exceeded expectations for both Rassell’s peers and himself. The now 20 year old saw his WHL career form later than some Tigers prospects. Listed by the Tabbies out of minor midget Rassell took a few extra years to develop, playing Midget AAA for the Calgary Flames before joining the Tigers as a rookie in the final season in the old building. Heading into 2017-18 as 1 of the 3 potential 20 year olds, Rassell knows that he will be counted on to provide a solid, rounded game in order to lead the Tigers to the success of 2016-17.
The Calgary, Alberta native bursted onto the scene in 2016-17, surprising many Tiger fans with an offensive flare, which has shown through at times throughout the previous 2 seasons. But things all changed for the big winger. Rassell led the Tigers in scoring with 36 goals. He also led the entire WHL in shorthanded goals, using his patented breakaway move to notch most of them. However, Rassell’s breakout season wasn’t just a fluke, it took a lot of mental toughness and believing in himself.
“During training camp last season I set goals for myself. My three biggest goals were to record 60 points, finish with a plus rating and receive an invite to an NHL camp. I already knew heading into the year that I had a good summer in the gym getting stronger and working on my explosiveness. I just believed in myself that I was ready to contribute more for the Tigers. I always knew I could score goals and be a force offensively, it’s just a matter of believing and working hard to make sure your full potential is reached.”
The Tigers leadership core will change drastically for fans as they head into the new season. Gone are last year’s assistant captains (and 5 year Tigers) Chad Butcher and Steven Owre. But the largest void will be the vacancy left by former Captain Clayton Kirichenko, who led the Tigers to their first Division Pennant in 10 years. Rassell would love to fill one of the voids left by last year’s overage players, but knows it’s not that simple.
“It’s not easy replacing those three guys on or off the ice. Kirch [Kirichenko] was a great captain, he had the highest plus minus in 10 years and a great attitude and dedication to the game. Butch [Butcher] had over 100 points and had such a calming demeanor in the dressing room. Stevie [Owre] had a career season last year and was very vocal in the locker room. You never want to have to replace guys like these but that’s junior hockey. It gives a lot of younger guys the opportunity to step up into bigger roles.”
In the Western Hockey League, 20 year olds (overage players) are highly coveted and are normally the club’s best players, drafted or not. The pressure for a 20 year old to perform in their final year of major junior can be higher than first year players. It is a challenge that all 20 year olds must face, some take it in stride, like Rassell, who plans on putting the pressure aside,
“There really isn’t any more pressure to perform on the ice then there already is. Your last year in the league is the most important, you want to be a successful overage player, get noticed and move your hockey career forward. For me, I will go into 17-18 like any other but putting my own personal expectations higher than last year.”
For the Tigers, the decision to appoint a new captain comes from the player’s peers, meaning the 24 other guys in the room pick their choice for Captain in 2017-18. It is a great honor to be selected Captain on any team, in any sport and Rassell hopes he can fill that position.
“It is a great honor to be noticed for your leadership by your peers. My teammates know from the past few years I am a vocal guy and are very approachable for anyone. I have also learned a lot of qualities from past Captains like Lewy [Tyler Lewington], Stants [Ty Stanton] and of course Clay [Kirichenko] last season. But with or without a letter on my jersey I plan on being the same player and person both in the locker room and in the Medicine Hat community.”
Heading into training camp, which kicks off at the end of the month, the Tigers roster will have some turnover. Some off season trades sending overage players to other teams as reduced that number from 10 to now 6 eligible to return for 17-18. With some new faces coming into the lineup fulltime including soon to be rookie Josh Williams, Import Mick Kohler and newly acquired Jordan Hollett, Rassell is excited to see what a new look Tigers lineup can do this season.
“I have heard some good things about our Imports. It’s always interesting to see different players from around the world and how they can adjust to life in Canada on a full time basis. With the addition of Hollett in between the pipes, I am excited to meet him and see what he can bring to the orange and black this season. ”
2017-18 for Rassell will see him don the title ‘Seasoned Vet’ to its fullest as the winger will have the most career games played than any other roster player heading into opening night. With 205 WHL games, all with the Tigers, if Rassell had a healthy 72 game season his totals would rank him 16th in franchise history.
“Being a more experienced guy on the team, you have to have a good balance between being both vocal and leading by example on and off the ice. Being a leader is about setting the standards, the culture and morale. Show players the ropes of the WHL; continue to hold your teammates accountable. The season has lots of ups and downs and as one of the team’s leaders you need to keep the focus going forward and in a positive direction”
With his play last year and offensive abilities shining through the Calgary Flames came knocking with an invite to their development camp this summer. That experience is something Rassell learned a lot from and will bring back to the Tigers this season.
“I had a great time in Calgary with the Flames. The camp was very educational with many information sessions on nutrition, fitness, lifestyle and mental preparation. I will be attending the Flames prospects tournament in Pentiction come the fall and look forward to that experience and learning even more about myself as a hockey player.”
As the 2017-18 season rapidly approaches, Mark and the rest of the Tigers are itching to get back to work, to continue their momentum from the end of last season. A new goaltender, some European flare and a large returning core, has the Medicine Hat Tigers primed for a breakout year.
“I am excited to get back to the ‘ Hat and spend time working with the boys. We had a memorable season last year and want to continue to build on it. If we stick to the process which made us successful then there is no question we could get back to the same level in 17-18 and hopefully a Championship.”