MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. -- When Erik Rasmussen’s friend T.J. Oshie stopped by with the Stanley Cup one July afternoon in 2018, Oshie asked for a photo with Rasmussen, the 1995 Mr. Hockey winner, holding hockey’s most coveted prize. Rasmussen politely declined.

“I’ll never touch it,” Rasmussen, 42, said recently, while taking a break from the hockey training work he has done since retiring from pro hockey a decade ago. A decade before that, when Rasmussen was playing his second NHL season with the Buffalo Sabres, his team came within two wins of earning the Cup, but fell to the Dallas Stars in a six-game affair.

In the locker room in Buffalo that night, Rasmussen recalls veterans with more than 15 NHL seasons under their belts weeping openly, cognizant that likely their best chance to hoist hockey’s holy grail had just passed.

The pessimist may look at Rasmussen’s hockey career as a series of near misses. He stood out in high school, but didn’t make it to a state tournament. He was a college star with the Minnesota Gophers, but didn’t play in a Frozen Four. He earned a good living in the NHL for more than a decade, but fell just short of the game’s top prize.

But when you talk with Rasumssen on a sunny summer afternoon outside a suburban hockey rink, he speaks only of his good fortune at every level. For example, he went to work in the NHL at the exact moment when the Sabres were on the upswing.

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“I got lucky,” said Rasmussen. “I came in and we had a goalie that was beyond good. We had a team that learned how to play in front of (Dominik) Hasek.”

Offense for the Orioles

Blessed with size and unafraid to use it in the corners of the offensive zone, Rasumssen was a high school star for a St. Louis Park program that often found itself overmatched versus western suburban rivals like Edina, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.

“We played hard but we were never going to come out of the Lake Conference and go to the state tournament,” Rasmussen said. “That’s just reality.”

But rather than dwell on his rivals getting to play in the famed state tournament, Rasumssen focused on the future. Like in so many other areas of his life, he considers himself lucky, and says that missing out on playing in St. Paul in March doesn’t define him or keep him up at night a quarter-century later.

“If I didn’t have the career I had with college and the NHL, maybe I’d have a completely different answer for you, but I knew I had hockey beyond high school,” he said. “That probably changes my approach.”

He officially visited Wisconsin and Michigan as well as the U of M. Rasmussen’s uncle Dale had played for the Gophers in the early 1960s, and Erik had grown up following the team at the old Mariucci Arena, so when he walked in the Gophers locker room the first time and saw a dozen players he already knew from high school rivalries and all-star teams, there was an immediate sense of home. As a freshman he led all Gophers rookies offensively and impressed the Sabres’ scouts enough that they selected him seventh overall in the 1996 NHL Draft. Rasumussen won a WCHA playoff title as a freshman, and a share of the WCHA regular season title as a sophomore, but the Gophers fell to Michigan in the second round of the NCAA playoffs both years.

“The hockey was very good. Our team was really deep. It was a lot of fun,” Rasumussen recalled of his time as a Gopher, playing alongside teammates like long-time NHL defenseman Mike Crowley and Hobey Baker winner Brian Bonin. “As a freshman you think that’s normal, and then as you get older, you realize that just doesn’t happen often.”

Paychecks and body checks

As a professional, Rasmussen logged five seasons with the Sabres, a season with the Los Angeles Kings, three seasons with the New Jersey Devils (missing the 2004-05 season due to the NHL lockout).

“He was just a beast of a kid. He came in and was already so strong for a young guy, that he’d just bowl people over,” said former Minnesota Duluth star Derek Plante, a teammate of Rasmussen’s for parts of two seasons in Buffalo. “I don’t know what the expectations were for him, but he did a great job. Lots of scoring chances and made a lot of the right plays when he first got there. But what I remember most is how he’d just light guys up occasionally.”

Rasmussen also played a season in Europe before shoulder and back injuries hastened his retirement 10 years ago. Some would look at it as a tough break, prematurely ending a good career when he was just 32, but Rasmussen stepped right into a good job training the next generation of players for MAP Hockey, and again, he talks of his good fortune.

“For the hundredth time, I lucked out. I literally retired and took the job that day. I was looking for things to do and had mutual friends that were here. I was staying in shape and kind of hanging on. I saw the program and the idea behind it, and really liked it,” he said. “It’s a way to give back to the game and work with kids. I’m the director of player development, if you want to put a title on it, but we all kind of do everything. I spend most of my time in the summer with pro guys, but our program runs from first year peewees to the NHL.”

Focused on hockey's future

In the current pros he trains, Rasmussen sees how starkly the NHL has changed in just a decade. When he played, your season would end and you would put the skates away until the calendar flipped to August. Now players take two weeks off and are back on the ice all summer, training at places like MAP and scrimmaging in Da Beauty League, where Rasumssen is a coach.

While he is still a loyal Gophers fan, Rasmussen admitted that working with kids from so many high school programs that have gone on to success with so many college programs, you find yourself rooting for the kid more than the team. And even with all that training under his belt, Rasmussen admits that there’s no one answer to on-ice success.

“Everyone’s path is a little different. Everyone is an individual on their own path. I’d love to tell you I can program a player, but that’s not just realistic,” he said. “The goal is to provide an atmosphere that’s encouraging and help the kids figure it out for themselves. The kids have to take advantage of that. Some do, some don’t. That’s just the way it is. There’s not one drill that makes a hockey player.”

It’s a combination of hard work, natural talent and good fortune. In his career on and off the ice Erik Rasmussen has had his share of all three.