Coming into a new league can be a challenge for any player. When you add in youth, a new culture, and your NHL Draft approaching, it’s a big change. For Windsor Spitfires’ defenceman Ruben Rafkin, the road to the OHL has been interesting but he’s taking it all in stride.
Rafkin, who hails from Turku, Finland, was the Spitfires’ first-round pick in the 2019 CHL Import Draft out of the Tri-City Storm (USHL). He’s also rated 72nd among North American Skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
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In 2019-20, the smooth-skating defenceman led the Spitfires’ rookies with 31 points in 59 games and, while only 6-foot, 190-pounds, showed a mean streak in the defensive end. At just 18-years-old, he has a bright future and will be fun to watch in the Rose City for the next couple of seasons.
Before this season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we sat down with Rafkin to talk about his trek to North America, life between Finland and Canada, and his preparations for the draft. Enjoy!
Q & A with Spitfires’ defenceman Ruben Rafkin
The Hockey Writers: Let’s start from the beginning; it’s back in the summer, you’re playing with the Storm and you get a call that you’ve been drafted by the Spitfires. What was your first reaction and how did you find out?
Ruben Rafkin: “Before the draft, there were a lot of teams calling me and my agent. I had a little bit of a clue about the Spitfires because my agent wanted me to go the OHL since he thinks its the best league out of the Canadian leagues. I knew it was going to be the OHL. I had to pick from the Top 15 (draft order) which team I would like to go to and for me it was Windsor. I started talking to them and then it was battling that no Q(MJHL) team would draft me. Two days before the draft, a Q team that was picking (earlier) called me and said it didn’t matter if I was going to the CHL, they were going to get me. I was a little worried but then the draft day came and everything went well.”
THW: What did you know about the City of Windsor and Spitfires before you got here?
Rafkin: “I knew Windsor was next to Detroit. I knew about the Memorial Cups and (former defenceman Mikhail) Sergachev and the players who have played here. I also heard about the coaches and knew they were great NHL players before. I practiced with (Buffalo Sabres’ defenceman) Rasmus Ristolainen over the summer, who was defensive partners with (Spitfires’ associate coach Mike) Weber in the NHL. So I heard a lot of good things from him which helped me a lot.”
THW: Now that you have almost a full regular season under your belt, how has the adjustment been from the USHL to the OHL?
Rafkin: “It’s been pretty good but it’s obviously a lot harder playing against guys who are first-rounders and guys who have signed in the NHL. In the USHL, there are older guys who go to college. They’re good, but the top here (OHL) is a lot better, especially for a defenceman. On one-on-ones, you need to be really sharp. It might be (Ty) Dellandrea or (Serron) Noel coming or whoever; it’s always a good player.”
THW: Last year, the Spitfires drafted goaltender Kari Piiroinen, who’s from Helsinki, Finland. How has your relationship been and how has he been able to help you adjust to life here?
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Rafkin: “It’s pretty good with Kari. He more of a quiet guy and likes to stay home, so I’ve made my own friends, but it’s been good. We help each other out and the guys are nice so it hasn’t been hard.”
THW: The NHL Draft is coming up and it’s on everyone’s mind. You’ve got Jean-Luc Foudy, Will Cuylle, and Egor Afanasyev who have either been a part of it or are going through it now? How have they helped you adjust to the process?
Rafkin: “Egor is one of my best friends so we’ve have had a lot of talks about it. He just tells me to not worry about it too much. Just keep playing and you’re a good player. Just do your thing and people will see. He tries to tell me to stay off of social media and watching stuff, but he admits that during his draft year he did the same thing and looked everything up. It’s in your hands to not watch, but nowadays, either you watch it or someone will tell you. You don’t want to stay off social media all of your year just because of the draft, too.”
THW: What’s one thing Spitfires’ fans would be surprised to know about you?
Rafkin: “I’m a big fisherman. Maybe some people might think of it because I’m from Finland, but that’s all I love to do during the summer. Get me a little bit away from hockey and it’s what I enjoy a lot.”
THW: A lot of players have pre-game routines or superstitions. Do you have any?
Rafkin: “Usually we come here at 10 a.m., get stretching, and then go to this breakfast place with the team. Some players go, some guys not. I depend; don’t go every day. Then I go home, nap, chat with my friends back home, watch some TV, then sleep for an hour and get a meal in me. One thing I always do is have a Red Bull. I have some prayers and rituals before I step on the ice but otherwise, I’m a pretty simple guy.”
THW: Let’s go back to before you came to Canada. Talk about minor hockey in Turku. What got you started? Who influenced you? Why did you decide to come to North America?
Rafkin: “I started when I was two. My dad was always a big hockey guy and obviously it’s a national sport in Finland. I knew right away that was the thing I wanted to do; started skating on the ponds. Then, I moved to TPS (Turku) to play. I was 12 when we started doing tournaments in Europe where they picked the best Finns, Russians, and Swedes, and I think a couple of teams from North America came … I played a couple of years there during the summer for summer showcases. This guy from North America scouted me for this tournament in Buffalo one summer. I went there and he wanted me to visit this prep school (Selects Hockey Academy). So, we went to visit together and that’s when I decided to move the prep school and it got started.”
THW: Were there any athletes you looked up to growing up?
Rafkin: “Growing up, obviously Teemu Selanne, he’s the Finnish icon. There are people I look up to like Conor McGregor (UFC) and Kobe Bryant. Not even hockey players, just people who did a lot with their careers even if it wasn’t hockey.”
THW: Culturally, what do you find to be the biggest differences between living in Canada and Finland? Are there any similarities?
Rafkin: “In Windsor, the weather is kind of the same. Even where I live (Turku), the winters back home in Finland haven’t been great so it’s pretty much the same weather. Food-wise, it’s a lot different. You don’t get the fish we eat at home. I feel like people here use more cheese and dairy than what we use at home. There are little differences between foods. Everything is bigger here like grocery stores and the packages with how the food comes. The drinks. Just more options.”
THW: Your family has come here a couple of times. How have they been an influence on your life?
Rafkin: “Huge. My mom, since my little brother came, she’s stayed at home and takes care of everything for my siblings and me. My dad’s my best friend. It’s hard to be away from them, especially when my little brother is eight and looks up to me. It’s not easy to be so far from him. When they come, and when I go home for the summer, I just try to take everything out of it. They’re definitely a big part for me.”
No matter when his name is called during the draft, a team is going to get a kid with a good head on his shoulders and a serious drive to succeed. Spitfires’ fans have seen it all season and he’s just getting started. We thank Rafkin for his time and look forward to seeing the 2020 NHL Draft unfold.
I’m a resident of Windsor, ON and a graduate of St Clair College Journalism and New Media program as well as the University of Windsor Communication, Media, and Film program. I’ve been a junior hockey fan (specifically the Windsor Spitfires) for 30-years and have written about/photographed junior hockey since about 2005.