During a phone conversation earlier this year with ECHL.com, Jon Rheault seemed a little down. The 26-year-old winger was down in the American Hockey League with the San Antonio Rampage and was lamenting the fact that, with the lockout still in place, he was starting to run out of time to achieve his goal of playing in the National Hockey League.
Fast forward about two months, and Rheault made his NHL debut with the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. The former Ontario Reign forward recalls the path that got him there in the following interview:
Mike Ashmore, ECHL.com: Tell me about getting drafted by the Flyers in 2006…
Jon Rheault: "That was a long time ago now, but it was definitely a very big accomplishment and milestone at that point in my career. It was always a goal of mine to get drafted, but it was kind of a weird experience for me. It kind of was an eye-opener and kind of the first time things didn’t go right was the year before, I was ranked by Central Scouting in the mid-term and then the final rankings, and was expecting to get drafted. My agent was like, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.’ The lockout year was supposed to be my draft year, and I ended up not going. That was kind of a tough time. At that point, not getting drafted after expecting it, it was a really big letdown. But looking back, that’s kind of the way a lot of my career has gone. I’ve had to deal with setbacks and certain things, and that was kind of the first time I learned that there was more business behind it, and it kind of fueled me and made me even stronger and want it even more. The following year, I did end up getting drafted. It was a nice feeling and a nice starting point. But, I learned right before that that nothing is given to you in this game, and you’ve got to work your bag off every single day."
ECHL.com: So, your first pro year, you split time between AHL Manchester and ECHL Ontario in 2008-09. What do you remember about that season?
Rheault: "I only signed with Ontario prior to the year. Through Ontario, I went to Manchester’s camp, and I made the team out of camp and played the first seven games before being sent to Ontario. So, my only contract was an (ECHL) one, but I ended up having a good camp and luckily due to some injuries in the Kings organization, I was able to get my professional start in the American League."
ECHL.com: You were with the Reign for parts of two seasons, what was the overall experience like there?
Rheault: "It was such a great experience, I learned so much. Karl Taylor was my coach, and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the pro game, and he was a very good coach. I learned a lot from him. I enjoyed my experience with Ontario, and I cherish those memories there. I still have fans from Ontario that are following my career at this point, so that just says a lot about that place and that town. They have a great following, and it was a lot of fun to play there."
ECHL.com: Just in looking at your career numbers, it seems like things finally started to click for you when you got to Abbotsford in the AHL. Fair assessment?
Rheault: "Yeah, it is. A lot of people that do get the call-ups, and that’s the way I was getting time, was call-ups…a lot of times, you have to fill a role and do what it takes to stay in the lineup and just kind of shut your mouth and do your job, work hard and hope things work out. Kind of what happened is all that hard work I put in with Manchester and a short stint with Providence kind of allowed me to get a really good opportunity in Abbotsford. When I got called up there, I was put on the top two lines and I was given power play time right away. I took advantage of it, I scored in I think my second game with Abbotsford. From then on, it was a whole confidence change and I just said, ‘I can play here.’ Then it went from ‘I can play here’ to ‘I can be really good here.’ It’s just kind of been snowballing like that for the past couple years."
ECHL.com: What went into the decision to sign with the Florida Panthers this off-season?
Rheault: "It was a tough decision. The second I stepped out of college, I’ve been chasing a two-way NHL contract. And that was my goal, that was the next step for me to get to my ultimate goal, which is to play in the NHL. Come free agency this year, there were a couple teams that had a two-way deal available. Unfortunately, Calgary was not one of those teams, and I have nothing but the most unbelievable respect for that organization and that coaching staff in Abbotsford. Troy Ward, he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had and I’ve learned so much from him day in and day out over the past two years. It was tough for me to leave that organization and leave him, because I know I could learn so much more from him. But in terms of a business decision and the best thing for myself, that two-way deal has been a goal of mine, and I chose to sign with Florida. It was a mixed-emotions day on July 1st when I did that, just because I really enjoyed my time in Abbotsford and that organization and they were the ones who gave me my first big opportunity. But at the same time, this is the next step and a new organization isn’t always a bad thing as well."