Okanagan Academy Helps Launch NHL Career

Michael Rasmussen at Okanagan Hockey Academy

Michael Rasmussen views himself more as a benefactor than a trendsetter. The Detroit Red Wings forward enjoyed a breakout NHL campaign during the 2021-22 season. He established career highs with 15 goals and 287 points. Rasmussen, 23, scored seven goals over his last 16 games and 10 goals through his final 34 games.

“I think that’s been in the works for the couple years he’s had,” Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin said of Rasmussen’s emergence. “I thought last year he had a strong season and then showed up this year in great shape. He trained hard, he stayed in Detroit, he worked on his skating with our skating coaches all summer and I think at some point in February, March, they put him on the wing and he really started to use his speed.

“He’s a big man and he can really skate. He played really well and played with confidence. I really hope and I know that as he continues in his career with that confidence and with that skating ability with his big size, he’s going to be a dangerous player and a really important player for our team.”

That’s not the Rasmussen trend we’re talking about here, however.

Back in 2014, Rasmussen, 14 years old at the time, enrolled in the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C. He spent three years there honing his craft, developing and growing as both a hockey player and a young man.

Michael Rasmussen with Okanagan

Rasmussen played with Okanagan’s bantam AAA team, their Elite 15 squad and their under-18 prep team. He remembers the experience with a deep fondness for all he was provided that helped him to progress along the way up the hockey ladder.

“It was huge,” Rasmussen said. “I can’t say enough good words about that program. It’s done a lot for me.”

While today, prep school hockey academies such as Okanagan are prominent and considered to be among the best paths to follow for elite young players seeking a leg up in making it to the next level of the game, when Rasmussen was at Okanagan, these programs were still in their infancy. He was the only player from his group to make it to the NHL.

“When I was there it was just starting up and those leagues were just starting up,” Rasmussen said. “Now all those programs are kind of everywhere.”

Between the travel and schedule, and the balancing of school with a demanding hockey regimen, the combination of hockey skills and life skills Rasmussen learned at Okanagan were the ideal setting to prepare for the next step of his hockey career, playing for the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League.

“I think that was probably the best move I made as far as getting ready for junior hockey, living away from home, practicing every day, working out every day,” Rasmussen said. “I think it’s similar to the junior hockey experience.

“As far as practicing every day and being in the gym every day, it’s similar to the NHL.”

Beyond improving his puckhandling, skating and overall hockey IQ, the opportunities for developing his time management skills and improving both his self-discipline and maturity were lessons that Rasmussen absorbed while at Okanagan that proved to be invaluable as he entered into the CHL game.

For many of his junior teammates, playing for Tri-City was their first experience living away from home and learning how to balance the demands of life with the requirements of an elite-level hockey career.

For Rasmussen, thanks to his Okanagan experience, it was already second nature to him.

“Absolutely, it’s tough being a young kid and juggling all that,” Rasmussen admitted. “It was easy for us at (Okanagan). You had everything lined up for you. You went to school, got out of school and worked out and practiced or you had a game that night.

“It’s very structured. You get into a routine. I think it’s good for kids to have structure and have things laid out for them and do something like that every day if you want to move up levels in hockey.”