For now, at least, Steve Rachkowski has achieved his dream job.
Given the fervour with which he tackles his love of hockey scouting, however, and everything associated with it, don't expect this to be a life-long dream job.
It's a safe bet that Rachkowski will, soon enough, be moving on to even bigger and better things.
A long-time Walden area resident who was born in Scarborough but moved north at the age of one, Rachkowski's name was a familiar one for those who followed the local sports scene some fifteen to twenty years ago.
“I don't think there was a time when I wasn't playing soccer or hockey, those were the main two,” noted the 30 year-old graduate of the Sports Administration program at Laurentian University, the young man who currently assumes the role of Coordinator with the NHL Central Scouting office in Toronto. “I was very fortunate to play with a lot of the same guys growing up in both sports.”
And though his post-secondary involvement in sport would lead him to a four year stint as a member of the Voyageurs' men's soccer team (keep in mind the men's hockey team had not yet been re-launched at that time), Rachkowski never drifted far from his first love.
“There was never a time when I thought soccer would supersede hockey.”
A “AAA” talent in his youth, the youngest of two children in the family displayed an early penchant for enjoying the more analytical side of the sport. “In my draft year, I broke my thumb twice and it was still before the rules changed,” he recalled. “It was a big, physical game, there was lots of fighting going on.”
“It was still a big man's hockey game,” Rachkowski continued. “I was lucky if I was 5'7” and 150 pounds. I thought I had a pretty high IQ for hockey. I could play forward and defense in a lot of situations, and I think coaches really valued that.”
Even as he entered the doors to the university in his own backyard, Rachkowski was giving thought to the process needed to achieve his end goal, enrolling in a program (SPAD) where graduates were already making in-roads at both the OHL and NHL level.
“I knew that the degree was going to be very helpful, but that the connections that I made were going to be more valuable to me than perhaps the program itself,” he said. “I just used that to take every opportunity to get my foot in the door in some type of scouting capacity.” His was a pragmatic approach that served him well, even as patience remained a key attribute.
“For a new graduate, some people had said to just get hired on by a team, in sales or marketing, and then you can move once you are in the organization.” Some two years after his graduation at L.U., Rachkowski would be hired by the Ottawa Senators, tackling a very typical entry level point with their sales department.
“When I wasn't in the office, I spent all of my time doing coaching, youth development, running practices on the ice for various AAA programs,” he said. “I really tried to broaden my hockey network in that sense.”
A SPAD connection with the Barrie Colts (GM Jason Ford) would open the door to some video work from Ottawa, assessing teams and reporting back to the Colts on how teams break out, what their power play tendencies were and such.
Some two years later, the process was paying dividends. Rachkowski was hired on as one of the office staff members for NHL Central Scouting, a job that he acknowledges remains about 70% administration and 30% scouting. Still, at least in conversation alone, his passion for talent assessment shines through.
While some who spend hours and hours in countless cold arenas seem to enjoy holding court, ensuring that their opinions are vociferously shared for one and all to hear, Rachkowski remains much more subtle and introspective. His soft, steady tone befits a thinking man's approach to the task at hand.
“It's still something I continue to learn and develop every day,” he acknowledged. “When you're playing, you tend to get to know players really quick, get a feel right away for their tendencies. When you're coming to watch, you don't necessarily get everything in one viewing – and because we cover so much ground, especially the full-time scouts, you may not see that instantly.”
“You have to keep an open mind, do some extra work, perhaps watch some video or highlights on your off-hours, trying to make sure you are familiar with everybody and how they are growing.” Above all else, Rachkowski prides himself on a belief that, much like the players on the ice, extra effort can help separate some from the pack.
“That's kind of how I am trying to establish myself,“ he said. “The hockey world can be a tight-knit community and there is a lot of “who you know”, so I'm trying to become the hardest worker I can be.” One senses a long-term larger vision at play, though the graduate of both the NOBHL and GNML never loses sight of maintaining an appreciation for the moment at hand.
“For somebody who is starting out, this is definitely a dream job,” he said. “Because of what you get exposed to, the contacts and connections that you get to make, the responsibility that you get to take on – there is nothing you would want to change as someone who is new to the industry. It's a unique opportunity that I do not take for granted.”
And when he can no longer suggest he is “new to the industry”?
“Hockey gives you so much opportunity, it's tough to say,” stated Rachkowski. “I would love to look at being on the management staff of an OHL team. I try and be realistic with my expectations that things will come in time, if you work and put in the hours.”