Every kid who grows up in B.C. dreams of one day playing for the Vancouver Canucks. Surrey’s Prab Rai nearly achieved that dream. Drafted by the Canucks in 2008, Rai signed a contract with the team in 2010. A top-line point producer in Junior, he looked to be on his way. Then a car accident changed everything.
This is Prab’s story, from his own account. Arranged by Omar Rawji.
Part 1 – The beginning
The first time I could say “I’m a Vancouver Canuck” was the day I was drafted. That was the most exciting day in my life.
When you’re part of this city, the Canucks will always be a part of you. The Canucks are my team. They’ll always be my team.
My favourite hockey memory as a kid was when I scored a goal at G.M. Place (now Rogers Arena). At that moment, I thought this must be what it feels like to be Pavel Bure.
Basically, I was a really hyper kid and I grew up playing every sport – I didn’t care what it was. I always followed my big brother, who was two years older than me.
My dad and his younger brother were field hockey players. They both played in the Olympics for Canada, so I guess field hockey runs in our family. Some of my younger cousins play it and my dad’s brother coaches.
When I was five, my brother was taking skating lessons and he wanted to play hockey, so my dad said sure. When dad went to sign him up for Surrey Minor there was there was a long wait list. I think it was more than a year long, so he figured why not put both our names down. He didn’t think much of it.
Somehow, I don’t know how, we were accepted right away.
Dad said, “Oh my God, they got in, but Prab’s never skated in his life before.”
We went to get equipment and everything, but I didn’t get new skates. I got those from my eldest cousin. He’s 10 years older than me, so I was using skates that were four sizes too big for me. That’s what I wore the first time I stepped on to the ice.
After my mom brought me home from my first practice she told my dad, “He doesn’t know how to skate. It’s embarrassing. I don’t think he should be playing.”
When my dad asked me how it went, I told him I had a blast.
I couldn’t have been happier.
I wore those skates that were four sizes too big for me for the first four years I played. They were the leather ones too – the leather Coopers. They were broken down – so broken into you could twist your ankles.
My dad took us to public skates and my skating was night and day from my first year to my second year of hockey.
I sometimes think those skates actually helped my skating ability – you know how speed skaters have long blades? They might have made me faster. Then again, I might be full of crap. I was a little kid and I looked like I had clown feet.
As I grew up I played baseball, I played soccer. I played lots of sports, so I was a really busy kid. I was on the all-star team in baseball and it was overlapping with summer hockey, so my parents eventually told me I had to make a decision because it was becoming impossible to play all these sports at once.
You know how when you’re a kid you wake up and you don’t want to go to school, you pretend you’re sick or whatever? If I had hockey that morning I was up before my parents ready to go. I was knocking on their door at 5 a.m. saying “I have to go to hockey!”
I told them I’d stick with hockey.
When I was in my third year of playing, I had the chance to play between periods at a Canucks game at G.M. Place. I got to be one of those kids.
And I scored a goal.
I never forgot that moment. I thought this is what it must feel like to be my favourite player, Pavel Bure.
From the start I always played at the top levels in hockey and my teams were pretty good. We won championships and stuff, but playing at G.M. Place stands out because of the way my career unfolded. It kept tying back into the Canucks.
Tearing it up in Junior
I always remember Don Cherry saying, “Act like you’ve scored a goal before. Act like you’ve been there before.”
I had that mentality – my job was to score goals and get assists, so I was just doing my job. People would bug me for never celebrating, saying I wasn’t happy, but I looked at my teammates and if they looked at me like I did my job, it was enough for me.
I was 17 when I was traded to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. I started on the third line when I arrived. I was one of the youngest guys on the team.
There was one game early during my time in Seattle where we were down 4-1 against the Spokane Chiefs after two periods.
A bunch of older players had larger roles and more responsibility with the team, but coach (Rob) Sumner comes into the room and starts yelling directly at me. I wasn’t bothered that he was yelling at me, but I was wondering… why?
I mean, our top guys weren’t playing well.
But he ripped me a new one. He just ripped me a new one.
As we were heading out of the room, he pulled me back. He looked at me and said, “Prab, I’m putting you on the first line. I f-ing need you to play.”
Growing up, I always played for the Surrey Thunder – the highest team in Surrey Minor. When I was 13, I played at a hockey school in Saskatchewan called Notre Dame, and after that I played Junior B for Maple Ridge. I also played some games in Junior A for Langley.
The next year I was in “the dub” (the WHL) with the Prince George Cougars, and that same year, I was traded to Seattle.
So there we were. In one of my first games with my new team, we were losing 4-1 to the Chiefs, and Sumner was going nuts on me.
That’s when I realized my coach needs me and I can’t let him down. I treat my hockey team like my family and the coach is like that dad of the team. I felt like I can’t let our dad down.
We went out for the third period and I set up two goals. It was 4-3.
With three seconds left, I scored the tying goal, and in overtime, I set up the winning goal of the game. We came back from 4-1 to win 5-4.
Coach Sumner came back in the dressing room and didn’t say anything.
I had done my job.
As the rest of the season went on, I played on the first line more, and next season I was regularly on the first line.
I was always fast and I was always a playmaker, but he put me at centre, he put me on defence, he put me in every position so I became a complete player.
After that game, Sumner never had to yell at me because I was harder on myself than anyone else could be. I would catch myself if I had a bad shift. He never worried about me. He said he knew I was my toughest critic.
Even if I was playing bad, I knew I just had to keep going.
That’s the thing I loved about hockey – even if you had a bad shift, you could always erase it. Nothing was really over until it was over. I loved how hockey was set up. I loved how fast it was. I loved how you could hit. I loved everything about it.
People ask me what’s my favourite thing in hockey. Obviously I love scoring goals and points, but that wasn’t the thrill for me. The thrill was when my team depended on me. I wanted to be that guy the coach tapped on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go”.
I don’t need praise from other people. I look at my teammates, and if they look at me like I’ve done my job, that’s enough for me.
I love what hockey gave me – when you score and the crowd goes wild. I can’t get that feeling anymore. I’m not a very emotional person, so hockey was a way for me to express myself. I can’t even go to the gym and go crazy anymore.
The thing that bugs me is I didn’t get hurt playing hockey. I got hurt outside hockey, and it took away my hockey.
Rai put up 199 points in the 200 games he played as a Thunderbird after that first season with the team. Now retired from hockey, he is running a clothing company called Joseph Chanan.
Part 2 of Prab Rai – Unguarded: the injury, will be released on Thursday.