The journey of Cool Hand Rau

LIIGA / Haastattelu
In Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, his last name is familiar to anyone who follows hockey. It can be found in several categories of his former high school record book. That last name is Rau.

The journey of Cool Hand Rau

In Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, his last name is familiar to anyone who follows hockey. It can be found in several categories of his former high school record book. That last name is Rau.

Story: Kalle Mantere


Chad Rau is one of the famous hockey players of Eden Prairie alongside New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy. But how did the Finnish league top scorer end up in Lappeenranta, Finland?

Due to his father's work transfer, Rau ended up in Eden Prairie at the age of ten. Ending up there wasn't self-evident as his parents had their eyes on houses in Edina and Bloomington also.

Luckily for Eden Prairie high school, the Hockey Gods aided the Rau brothers 12 miles southwest of the Twin cities as two of the four brothers would stay in the history books of Eden Prairie hockey for a very long time.

The other two, Matt and Curt, have already left hockey and moved on to real jobs. Matt ended his career in St. Olaf college and graduated later as a doctor.

To anyone following old TV-series, that St. Olaf, is not the same city as TV-character Rose Nylund's hometown, in the Tv-series "The Golden Girls".

Curt played for the Odessa Jackalopes in NAHL and hung his skates back in 2013.

Every hockey website including and list Eden Prairie as Rau's birthplace. The planned fairy tale where a Minnesota-born player goes through high school, college, the American hockey league and gets to play for the NHL club of his hometown scoring a goal in his first game goes half way to the trash can in one sentence.

When asked about the information, Rau sets a new storyline in six words.

- Actually I was born in Illinois. But everyone refers Eden Prairie as my hometown as I started playing more competitive hockey in Minnesota.

As North American tradition states, the Rau family had a sportscourt in the backyard and it was frozen every winter. The court was part of the deal for the Rau family to move out from Chicago. A family friend built it in the backyard right after the family had settled in Minnesota.

"Actually I was born in Illinois."

- We moved to Minnesota when I was ten years old and it was part of the deal when we moved. We had a friend who was in construction business and he built a sports court made out of concrete. We were able to freeze it during the winter and rollerblade and play street hockey in the summer.

In 1993 the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas and a vacuum was left in the state. In july 1997 the NHL expanded and Minnesota was once again given a hockey team. Three years later the Minnesota Wild took a slogan "State of Hockey". The slogan is no joke, as hockey is a passion in a northern state against the Canadian border.

Something tells about the passion of Minnesotans when 22,244 hockey-fevered rushed to see the Minnesota state finals a few weeks ago. The attendance is a new record in a hockey game in Minnesota. During the NHL games the Xcel Energy Center takes just 18,568 people to watch the Wild play.

To put the matter into perspective the NHL's average attendance during the 2014-2015 season was 17,502.

- I think the fans are really passionate there. You could see it when Minnesota didn't have a team for a while, that they would go and see the Gophers instead. Hockey is a huge pastime there. Also, the weather is kind of similar to Finland where you have outdoor rinks for a long time and you can go skate.

The junior coaches get their say

Rau started in Eden Prairie high school's hockey team in 2002. During his two seasons he broke several school records and held on to them, until another Rau came along and broke some of them seven years later.

Coaching his 23rd season in Eden Prairie head coach Lee Smith is excited as he's approached for an interview.

- Absolutely! Chad is one of my best all time players!

Smith has nothing but high praise for Rau's two years in high school.

- Chad was a gifted offensive player. He was a threat every time the puck was on his stick and well respected by his teammates and our coaching staff. He was a great leader by example!

According to Lee it was obvious that Rau would play hockey as a profession. Especially his hockey IQ was something that Lee hadn't seen in a while.

- Chad has both the physical and mental skills to play pro hockey. He also had tremendous offensive instincts. His hockey IQ was above the level of his opponents and teammates too.

Rau says he simply enjoyed high school hockey. Especially playing with his older brother Matt during his senior year was a highlight. That was something that hadn't been possible in the years before that.

- Oh, I had a blast. Playing in front of your family and friends every night. The stadium wasn't anything like the one here in Lappeenranta, but it had seats only for one side and it was sold out for the big games. When we played against our biggest rivals there were people standing everywhere.

- You kind of grew up there idolizing those players when you're a youth player. As we kept on missing each other in different age groups, I got to play with my older brother Matt, which was really the first time we got to do that. He was a senior and I was a sophomore at the time.

"He went out and took over the game as a 15-year-old and just dominated."

Words from his high school coach about leading by example makes Rau think about his own perspective on hockey. He says that he has always wanted to work hard and take pride for doing so.

- I always pride myself in working hard and do everything the right way. I guess that's something I've always done. There's some guys that are natural at speaking more and lead by speak, but I feel like I've always tried to play hard the right way and do the right things what I expect others to do too.

After two years in high school Rau wanted to change scenery. Next stop would be the Des Moines Buccaneers in Iowa playing in the North American Hockey League. According to Lee, Rau's decision was understandable, even though he knew that it would hurt his high school team next season.

Lee says that Rau could've gotten drafted earlier in the 2005 draft by staying in Eden Prairie. He probably would've taken the Mr. Hockey award, which is presented to the most outstanding senior high school hockey player in the state of Minnesota.

- I knew it would hurt our team a lot, which it did, but you always wish the best for your players. Chad would have been Mr. Hockey, still highly drafted, and maybe brought us to state tournament. That was the tough part of it. At the end, hard to argue with his choice.

Over a decade later Lee still follows the accomplishments Rau is getting around the world.

- I still follow him, and am proud of all his accomplishments in hockey! He was awesome to coach.

Photo: Samppa Toivonen

First visit to Des Moines

Back in 2004 as the head coach of the Des Moines Buccaneers, Regg Simon understood from day one how good a player he had in his hands.

- I knew he was going to be good for us, but I don't think anyone knew he was going to produce the way he did as a 17-year-old. I remember watching him as a sophomore at Eden Prairie in high school playoff game. If I recall correctly, his team was either down by 1 or tied going into the third period. But the third period was the Chad Rau show!

- He went out and took over the game as a 15-year-old and just dominated. His team won because of him. It was because of that game that we drafted him into our organization.

No one expected a rookie player to be such an outstanding force for Des Moines. Rau outdid his next best teammate by 37 points. And all this while Des Moines was left dead last in the standings the previous season and was in rebuilding mode.

- Every night we took the ice, the mission for opposition was easy: Stop Chad Rau. Chad faced the top-pair defensemen and best checking line from the other team every time he stepped on the ice. For him to come out of high school, and be in that situation, and still score 31 goals and 71 points in that league tells anyone that he was a special player.

Simon says that apparently nothing hasn't changed in a decade. Rau still wants the puck more than any other player he's ever coached.

- I don't know if I ever coached another player that was as puck-hungry as Chad. He had a nose for the puck, and I suspect that's what everyone in Finland is finding out. He was that way as a young player and without even watching him play there, I can tell that he's still that type of player. You either want the puck on your stick or you don't. To this day, I still know Chad Rau always wants it.

According to Rau the transfer became apparent when the universities started to take interest on him. In Minnesota, high school hockey teams play less games than in the USHL, where teams play 64 games during the regular season. Another reason was that Rau wanted to play against older and tougher opponents.

"It was probably one of the biggest seasons I had as for development and what I learned with that post-season run that we went on."

- I think I already had an offer from college at that point and I wanted to go to my freshman year in college and make an impact right away. I needed to go to juniors and play more games against older players. For some reason I didn't want to delay a year after high school and then play juniors before going to college. I couldn't even tell what the motivating reason behind it was, but I think it was the right decision.

While playing in SaiPa, Rau survived 86 regular season games without a single penalty. In fact to the day this is written, the only penalty so far came during the play-offs last season when Rau was sent to the sin bin with four other players. For SaiPa, Rau was accompanied by David McIntyre and Rony Ahonen. In Des Moines Rau collected 32 minutes during his only season, which is more than he has collected during the five past seasons.

- I don't know. Maybe the games were called really tight, laughs Rau.

A fantastic rookie season in Des Moines gave him all kinds of trophies. Rau was chosen Rookie of the Year in the USHL and because of that one season, he was also inducted to the Des Moines Buccaneers Hall of Fame in June 2014.

After the season Rau joined the USNTDP and was selected to play in under-18 World Championships in Czech Republic. Rau says that even though he won gold in the tournament, he got the spot by luck. One of the players got injured and Rau found himself on a plane heading to Sweden. His linemates are players playing in the NHL at the time.

- The Under-18 tournament was really cool. I got to skate with Nick Foligno, who plays with Columbus Blue Jackets now. I played in the same line with Foligno and Jack Skille [now Colorado Avalanche]. We got so many scoring chances each game, but for what ever the reason was we just couldn't score. Playing with those guys was a quite an experience.

Photo: Getty Images

From college to the Show!

During his college career in Colorado, Rau showed everyone why he was called a natural goal scorer. He was the lifeline during his junior and senior year for the Tigers, scoring 48 goals in 78 games. If you count the assists Rau had an amazing 140 points in 159 games during his time with the Tigers.

During those four years Rau also won most of the trophies available. Rau was chosen first-team All-WCHA and All-American twice.

The Tigers showered Rau with more trophies. After his freshman year Rau was awarded the Bob Johnson Award, after his sophomore and junior years the M.B. Hopper award for teams leading scorer. Also Rau was awarded the MVP award named after Thayer Tutt and the trophy named after Steve Ebert for dedication, desire, ability and sportsmanship.

- I really enjoyed my time in college. WCHA was the league that kids from the mid-west wanted to play in. It was the league that I grew up watching. Especially in Minnesota we had season tickets to watch the Gophers and to see all the big games there. Colorado was a great school and a great hockey experience too.

All of that didn't come easy. In the movies college life, even for athletes, is portrayed as one party after another. But in reality playing in the college level took a lot of commitment and hard work.

- Well, during the season yes, Rau laughs.

Playing in the WCHA Colorado had long road trips. Especially when playing against teams in Alaska. Players would leave several days before and going on the road did not mean that they would get exemption from classes.

According to Rau, players had only one class to attend in a 3.5 week period from 9 am to noon. Long road trips would mean that they would miss some of them. Sometimes they would need tutors to catch the rest of the class.

- It was great that you didn't have to juggle a bunch of classes, but when you had roadtrips you would had a lot of catching up to do. Especially when we went to Alaska we had to use tutors. You'd leave on Wednesday and we would miss two days of class, which was a big deal.

After four years in college, Rau would find out that Toronto Maple Leafs which picked him in the 7th round of 2005 draft, would not make an entry-level contract with him. It was time to find a new team through free agency.

Rau ended up in Houston Aeros, the affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. Someone might think that a player who started his career in Eden Prairie would want to play for Wild's affiliate, but no. Luck came into play again for Rau.

"We scored three goals in a row and the excitement in the building was something you can't understand unless you were there."

- I actually got lucky with that as one of their higher draft picks at the time got injured. I can't even remember, maybe a boating accident or something, but anyways he couldn't play in the prospect tournament so they had a an open spot.

With a little bit of luck and connections from his agent Rau got a spot in Minnesota Wild for the prospect tournament in Traverse City. The rest, as they say is history. Rau ended up being one of the most important players for Houston collecting 38 points in his rookie season.

- My agent said it would a great opportunity to play in the tournament in Traverse City. They liked me enough to invite me to Houston on a tryout basis and ended up making the team and staying there for a number of years.

After Chad's first year in Houston Chad got a call from his younger brother Kyle, who had broken Chad's seven-year-old goal scoring record in Eden Prairie. In the spirit of brotherly love, Kyle just called to rub it in.

According to the story Chad responded by reminding his younger brother that he only spent two seasons at his high school, adding that the record would have been his if he would have played another season of high school hockey.

Chad also gave a non-verbal response to his brother. According to the story Chad returned to Minnesota with all of his college trophies and set them up on a dresser for Kyle to see. Chad doesn't deny the story, but says it might be somewhat coloured.

- No, I think he just saw the trophies at the house or something. I don't exactly remember how the story goes.

Next season Rau was still one of the key players for Aeros scoring 13 goals and making 40 points. The season was very meaningful to him as he suffered a bizarre injury in a even weirder turn of events, but still came back to fight for the AHL championship. The end of the season for him and the team was bitter, as Binghamton Senators took the Calder Cup, winning the finals 4-2.

- It was a great season, don't get me wrong. I started the season really well and had a freak accident during practice. We were doing just a simple drill and I lost my edge ending up in the end boards. I got up, I felt fine and was skating back to the line and ended up fainting and falling on my chin. Of course it fractured and I missed twenty some games.

Rau didn't need to get his fractured jaw wired shut, but he noticed that he was in tighter observation during the little practice he could do. The fracture right below he's right ear prevented him from getting on the ice completely, but wasn't a season ending injury. To Rau that season was one of the biggest of his career development-wise.

- It was probably one of the biggest seasons I had as for development and what I learned with that post-season run that we went on. The experience what we gained from was tremendous and you really don't understand what it's like until you go on a run like that or play that many meaningful game sevens as we did. It was one of my more memorable years, that's for sure.

West Division Semifinals were easy for the Aeros. They swept Peoria Rivermen 4-0 and advanced to divisional finals. Aeros faced Milwaukee Admirals and the series went all the way to game 7, were the Texans took the win 4-2.

Seven games were needed as Houston took the win it needed to secure a spot in the Calder Cup Finals. The opening goal of game seven was scored by one Chad Rau.

Photo: Mikko Lieri

From the bright lights of NHL to Europe

Rau was called up to the injury riddled Wild in January 2012. In his first game he got to do the one thing most of the NHL players never get to do. Score a goal for his hometown team in his first NHL game.

In a game against the Dallas Stars Rau scored his goal in second period of the game. In Finland 90 % of his goals have been scored within yards of the goal and his first in the show, was no different. And it only took two shots on goal to achieve that.

- It was one of the most exciting games I've ever played in. We scored three goals in a row and the excitement in the building was something you can't understand unless you were there. My whole family was able to come and watch the me play and it was a neat experience rest asure.

With a little help from Cal Clutterbuck, Rau got the puck and faced Dallas netminder Kari Lehtonen. Rau's first shot ended in the goalie pads, but he followed his own shot and slid the puck past Lehtonen.

Ironically thinking Rau scored his first NHL goal past a Finnish goalie and has done that now in the Finnish league.

- After I scored I didn't know what to do. It's a really neat feeling that you can't describe. It was pretty exciting game to be a part of.

Rau got to play nine games in Minnesota before he was sent back into the American Hockey League affiliate in Houston.

In April 2013 it was announced that the Aeros would have to relocate. Wild's ownership and Toyota Center in Houston failed to negotiate a new lease for the team. After months of negotiations Aeros failed to find an alternative arena for them to play in Houston. To the forward it was a trip down memory lane. Aeros would relocate in Des Moines, Iowa, where Rau played for the Buccaneers.

The season in Iowa wasn't easy. The AHL's veteran rule allows a team to put just six players on the line-up that have played 260 professional games or more in the NHL, AHL or Europe.

At the time Rau had 275 games under his belt. The other problem from his view was that Iowa had just under a dozen players that were categorized as veteran players.

- Hockeywise it was a little tough for me as the team had too many veteran players. I ended up in the rotation and it was tough for me to play my game. It was the first time in my career when I was put in a situation like that, when I would come to the rink and wasn't sure what the line-up would be.

Rau says he understands that hockey in the AHL is just business, and the players are just pawns. Also one of the unwritten rules of hockey is that you don't change the winning line-up.

- There was literally four or five of us in the rotation and if we would win the line-up would stay the same. It was a challenge to find my game and play with confidence, but that's the way of the game. Or the business side of it.

"After I scored I didn't know what to do. It's a really neat feeling that you can't describe."

In February Rau got to experience the business side of hockey. The forward was dealt in a minor league deal to San Jose with Curt Cogol going the other way to Minnesota. He ended up in San Jose's affiliate Worcester Sharks in Massachusetts.

- Worcester was kind of in a similar situation at the time as Iowa. We lost a few close games and could've been somewhere else, but that's the way it goes. That's hockey.

After the season Ray says he considered the possibility of playing in Europe. The opportunity came knocking when Austrian EHC Linz made an offer to the forward. After listening to his friends describing European hockey, Rau accepted the offer and moved to Europe with a hope of a new start.

- I thought it was time to try something else. I played a lot of hockey in the AHL and I thought it would be time to try hockey in Europe. I had a lot of friends who were playing overseas and said a lot of great things about it.

Playing in Austria wasn't that easy. For a player who's used to scoring, failing to do so is agony. In december EHC Linz announced that they would be looking for a new club for the American. The blame wasn't totally Rau's though. After Phillip Lukas and Matthias Iberer came back to the line-up, the Austrian club was forced to so some radical moves. The reason for those moves is in points given to players when they're signed by a club in the league.

In the Austrian league EBEL, every player is given points from zero to four. Players age, nationality and international experience are just some of criteria. No team can exceed sixty points during the season. In points Rau was one of the highest one's on the team and two players returning to the line-up from injury was too much in team points for the club.

At that time Rau's teammate from the AHL came into picture. In December Rau was in touch with McIntyre, who told him about his current club, SaiPa in Finland. Rau started to gather information about this northern league and it's eastern club and got enough of it through his friends.

- A friend of mine said I would like it a lot. That it was more North American style of hockey than I was playing in the Austrian league. And that's exactly what it was.

In the end McIntyre gave a crucial recommendation to SaiPa. Rau says that he was the instrumental part, when the club decided to aquire him.

- David was pretty important. He gave Lappeenranta and the league a high recommendation and told me exactly what to expect. I'd say he was pretty accurate.

Rau has found a new direction to his career from Lappeenranta. The slump from Iowa and Austria is just a faded memory. He's not the first player to do so in SaiPa, and surely not the last.

- The second half of last season was really good and I was able to play play-off games with a really good team. I think I knew what expect coming in this year and knew what I needed to do to be ready to play.

To this day every team in the Finnish league has Rau's name in their scouting report. The winner of league's top scorer trophy with 28 goals and 25 of them scored within yards of the goal admits that surprising everyone and one timing a shot from the blue line isn't reality, but with a bit of luck the puck just might bounce in.

- I don't know, I'm not there very often, Rau laughs

- I'd like to, but... I dump it in often from there. Just haven't had the kind of bounce what I need yet.

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