Jess Myers

Hockey leaders from different coasts “meet in the middle” for success

by Jess Myers February 08, 2010 in Hockey

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Along a stretch of Interstate 25, in the region of Colorado known as the Front Range, two of college hockey’s most electrifying players toil less than 60 miles apart. What’s most notable about that distance is that the University of Denver’s Rhett Rakhshani and the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Matt Fairchild could hardly hail from father apart, but they’ve “met in the middle” so to speak.

Rakhshani hails from the seaside Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Beach, while Fairchild comes from Ashburn, in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. If not for the roller hockey boom of the 1990s, these offensive stars – both of them candidates for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award – might have stayed 2,600 miles further apart than they are today. But the chance to learn hockey on wheels, as opposed to on ice, led to skill development and opportunities that neither could likely have imagined.

Frank Serratore, who is Fairchild’s coach at Air Force, likens the roller hockey boom to the days when he first learned the sport during cold Minnesota winters, when kids would learn the skills needed for success on their own with little in the way of formal coaching.

“Roller hockey is primarly an unstructured game; the culture is very similar to the outdoor rink and frozen pond environments of yesteryear. In essence, roller hockey kids develop the same skills and instincts as the northern kids did back in the day when they recreated on the outdoor ice with their neighborhood buddies,” Serratore said. “In this relatively unstructured environment, the kids develop good skills and a high level of creativity, which we refer in hockey as “hockey sense.” Most importantly, these kids acquire a deep-seeded passion for the game because they are having a tremendous amount of fun and and any high-level player will tell you the game of hockey is most enjoyable in its purest form.”

The coach says that creativity was evident in Fairchild’s game the moment he arrived at the Academy, but his game has definitely gotten more polished as a collegian.

“Matt has a great skill set and he just out-athletes a lot of guys,” Serratore said. “Down low in the corners, with his ability to handle the puck, it’s like he’s playing a keep-away game.”

An hour north of the Falcons’ home rink, in Denver, Rakhshani has been doing anything but keep fans away during his three-plus seasons with the Pioneers. While racking up a host of league and national honors, including his candidacy for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, Rakhshani has led the Pioneers offensively and helped them to the top of the national polls at times this season.

“Rhett has tremendous stick skills and he’s capable of doing some wonderful things that other people just can’t do,” said Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky. “He has such great roller hockey hands and is so fast, so what he’s able to do – pick the corner or shoot a puck off a pass, maintain possession when he’s knocked off balance – those are the things that he’s really, really good at.”

The humble Fairchild, who is majoring in systems engineering management and has been on the Dean’s List every semester, jokes that you see those roller hockey skills in everyone of his peers, except him. While planning a future that will include his commitment to the armed forces, he’s more interested in team accomplishments, and delights in the surge Air Force hockey has made in recent years, going from a perennial also-ran to a yearly contender for the NCAA tournament.

“It’s gone from friends telling me they didn’t know Air Force even had a hockey team, to saying, ‘hey, I saw your game on TV last weekend,’” Fairchild said.

Rakhshani, who is majoring in management, is on track for a college degree, but may put the business world on hold for a career which involves shooting pucks. A fourth-round draft pick of the NHL’s New York Islanders, Rakhshani is listed by many as a top pro prospect. That would be another chance to put those skills learned on the roller hockey rinks of Southern California to good use.

“Roller hockey is more of an offensive game so there are more offensive opportunities you’re given,” he said. “A lot of it is just hockey sense, but over time I’ve been able to develop a little bit of a scoring touch and a quick release.”

Thousands of miles from the suburbs of Our Nation’s Capital, and from the stretches of sand made famous by the Beach Boys, Fairchild and Rakhshani have met in the middle, where they’re making magic on the ice.