By Ryan McCracken on February 7, 2019.
When Mark Rassell heard his former linemate had reached 100 career assists in the Western Hockey League, he couldn’t help but chime in.
The former Medicine Hat Tigers captain scored the bulk of his 104 goals in the Gas City off passes from current captain James Hamblin, so when the team announced Hamblin’s playmaking milestone on Instagram during Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings, Rassell was the first to comment.
“You’re welcome,” Rassell said in his reply to the post.
The 21-year-old Calgary product has taken his game to the University of New Brunswick’s Varsity Reds this year. One advantage of playing on the East Coast is that Rassell’s hockey schedule rarely overlaps with Medicine Hat’s — allowing him to both keep close tabs on the team’s progression and be ready with a snappy punch line whenever the chance arises.
“It was a little bit later out here with the three-hour time difference, so when I saw that I was having a little fun and decided to have a little fun with Jim,” said Rassell. “He was a big part of my personal success. We played together for the better part of three years so I figured I’d be a little cheeky.
“We still give each other a hard time even though we’re 4,000 kilometres away.”
Rassell’s Varsity Reds have clinched top spot in the U Sports Atlantic University Sport conference with a commanding 23-2-3 record, but the transition to men’s hockey hasn’t come without its challenges. Rassell admits it took him a while to hit his stride after going from a 50-goal scoring captain in the WHL to a rookie among men at the U Sports level.
“It’s one of those things I was told to prepare for, but I don’t really think you can,” said Rassell, who has 14 goals and 13 assists in 28 games this season. “It’s really good hockey and you’re playing against most people who played in the CHL … and they’re four years better. It’s just like going back to your rookie season in junior.”
While it was a slow start to the season by his standards, Rassell has been heating up at the right time. The post-season is just around the corner and the former Tabby has 10 points in his past six games — a span that includes his first career regular season U Sports hat trick in a 9-4 win over former Tiger teammate Chad Labelle and the University of Prince Edward Island on Jan. 18.
“It felt good, this is a tough league to score in so anytime I get a hat trick I’m going to be more than happy. A season with 10 goals is considered a big success out here,” said Rassell, who had four points in the win. “It took me a little bit to kind of find my footing in the league but ever since Christmas I think I’ve been playing a lot better, and I think my coach would agree with that. I’ve been playing a lot better on both sides of the puck.”
UNB will close out the regular season with a pair of home games this weekend.
Friday’s opponent, the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, made headlines this week after getting into a line brawl with the Acadia Axe Men Saturday and having a combined 15 players suspended as a result, along with both head coaches. Nine players will be missing from the X-Men roster Friday.
“I know they’re going to have a short bench but we’ll be ready for them,” said Rassell. “I know a lot of their best players are still in the lineup so it’s still going to be a good game.”
The Reds wrap up the regular season Saturday against Dalhousie. Considering they’ve already locked up the conference, and with it a first-round bye, Rassell says his squad will be approaching this weekend as the start of the post-season.
“We have about 10 to 13 days off between our last regular season game to our first playoff game so we’re treating this as our first round,” said Rassell. “It’s kind of a trial run for us because our first round, the league’s second round, is only a five-game series.”
While their upcoming playoff opponent is still to be determined, earning a place in the AUS championship series would also send the Varsity Reds to the national championship in Lethbridge March 14-17.
A trip back to Alberta would mean more than a shot at a national title in front of some familiar faces, as Rassell points out the tournament draws in a number of scouts and could open the door back up for a shot at the NHL.
“Scouts don’t really come to our games until nationals on the big stage,” he said. “If we end up making it to Lethbridge this March then probably the talks will pick up again.”
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