By RYAN McCRACKEN on March 19, 2019.
It’s a good thing Mark Rassell didn’t skip shoulder day.
The 22-year-old Medicine Hat Tigers alumnus became a national champion Sunday after scoring a goal and adding an assist to lead his University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds to a 4-2 victory over the Alberta Golden Bears on Sunday at the Enmax Centre – and when the time came to hoist the David Johnston University Cup, Rassell was ready.
“It was an unbelievable feeling holding that trophy. It’s heavier than it looks, holy,” he said. “I always would joke in the summer when I was doing the shoulder press or upper-body workouts, it was, ‘This is me lifting the trophy.’ I was joking, but today it came true. I got my first national championship and there’s no looking back now.”
While the Enmax Centre – home of the Lethbridge Hurricanes – has been one of the most hostile rinks Rassell has known in his hockey career, it’s also been home to three of his most unforgettable memories both as a member of the Tigers and now as a Varsity Red.
“The Enmax Centre has been good to me: First WHL game, first WHL point and now first U Sports national championship,” said Rassell, who finished his Tigers career with 104 goals and 78 assists in 275 games. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
When Rassell closed the book on his Western Hockey League career and made the decision to further his education while growing his game, he was left with a couple of options, including the Varsity Reds and the reigning U Sports champion Golden Bears – a team including Rassell’s former Tabby teammates Clayton Kirichenko, Steven Owre, Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford. While the foursome pushed hard to have Rassell join their ranks, the Calgary product opted to try something different and forge his own path in Fredericton.
“I think I made the right choice,” said Rassell. “They were kind of giving me a hard time about my decision because they wanted to keep the band together and get me up to Alberta, but honestly there just wasn’t room for me this year. They didn’t lose much from last year, and I wanted to try something new, go out to Fredericton and I did. I’m not looking back, no regrets right now. I’m sitting here with a medal around my neck and a beer in my hand. I’m really happy.”
Rassell’s Reds opened the tournament with a 2-1 victory over the Carleton Ravens, then added a 9-1 drubbing of the rival St. Francis Xavier X-Men before achieving national glory against the Golden Bears. While nothing could stop the celebration, Rassell admits it was somewhat bittersweet to know his elation came directly at the expense of his close friends and former teammates.
“You really feel for them, but there can only be one winner and I’m just happy I was on the winning side,” he said. “We’re battling for a national championship, and you want to still love each other after the game but at the same time you want to beat them so bad. It’s such a good feeling, but I know those guys wanted it so bad. Cox and Sanford were obviously mentors for me in Medicine Hat. I shook their hand afterward and they were really proud of me, but obviously they were really sad.”
Rassell wasn’t the only former Tiger to make an impact in the big game. Owre – who logged 74 goals and 147 assists over 283 games as a Tiger – opened the scoring for the Golden Bears just over four minutes in, but his tally was quickly answered by Rassell’s first point of the tournament. Fresh off the bench, Rassell jumped in on the forecheck, forced a turnover and found Samuel Dove-McFalls streaking to the net for the equalizer.
“We know they like to go cross-ice and I kind of snuck in there, got it then gave it to Dover. Dover is an unbelievable player, he’s our best defensive centreman and he chipped in offensively,” said Rassell. “When the No. 1 team in the country scores on you that early, you get a little nervous. So to get that one back to be 1-1, it was incredible.”
The Reds rallied to take a two-goal lead in the second on goals from Oliver Cooper and Kris Bennett. While Golden Bears forward Brandon Magee cut the deficit in half early in the third period, Rassell pushed the game back out of reach on a sharp-angle shot just past the halfway point of the final frame.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to score a goal in my life,” said Rassell, adding it was surreal to hear Lethbridge’s arena announcer belt out his name on the goal, especially after the voice haunted his dreams for four seasons with Medicine Hat. “Usually he’s talking about Stuart Skinner scoring a goal on us or (Jordy) Bellerive doing whatever, but this time he did his voice for me. It was unbelievable hearing him announce my goal, up 4-2 with about 10 minutes left, maybe less than that. It’s incredible.”
While he hasn’t pulled an orange and black jersey over his head for nearly a year, Rassell still managed to do his part for the Tigers – who could cross paths with the Hurricanes in the second round of the WHL post-season – during his stay in Lethbridge by dishing out his unique brand of trash talk to any Hurricanes in the building.
“I was very vocal about being a Tiger to everybody,” he said. “The boys on the team thought it was funny. Our dressing room was right next to the Lethbridge Hurricanes room so I was joking around about how the Tigers are better and all that. I ended up seeing a couple Hurricanes when we were going through our day and they were in and around the building. I got to see some of them and I was giving them a hard time saying, ‘Hey, the Tigers are coming for you. The Tigers are coming.'”
He was right. The Tigers were coming, three of them in fact. After shooting old teammate Ryan Jevne a congratulatory text message following Saturday’s regular season finale – the last of Jevne’s WHL career – Rassell learned a few Tabbies would be making the trip down Highway 3 to watch their former captain battle for national glory. When the trophy came out, Jevne, Ryan Chyzowski and Tyler Preziuso were there waiting with open arms.
“They snuck on the ice to give me a hug. It was great to see those guys,” he said. “I always loved my time in Medicine Hat. My new teammates here in Fredericton, they give me a hard time for how much I love the Hat. They’ll never understand what that city did for me â€¦ Medicine Hat will forever have a place in my heart.”