VANCOUVER – When you ask Jack Rathbone about his season at Harvard, the 20-year-old defenceman spends two minutes talking about his team and how the Crimson started well, then struggled, but had great leadership and culture and eventually grew stronger from the adversity.
And when you try to clarify and ask about “his” season, Rathbone starts talking about the Harvard coaching staff and how much they’ve helped.
Then you ask Vancouver Canucks player-development director Ryan Johnson about Rathbone and it all makes sense.
“I’ve developed a great relationship with Jack,” Johnson says. “He’s got a tonne of hockey tools. But what really stands out is his character.”
That has been apparent since the Canucks selected the Boston-area player in the fourth round of the 2017 draft and Rathbone chose to spend an extra season playing high school hockey, so he could be near home and his autistic brother, Teddy, rather than upgrading to the United States Hockey League before enrolling at Harvard in 2018.
It’s Rathbone’s character, in combination with his dynamic offensive skills, that has elevated the defenceman’s standing within the Canucks’ prospects pool the last couple of years and has the National Hockey League team eager to sign him this spring.
Back home in West Roxbury, Mass., Rathbone told Sportsnet on Friday that he and his parents, Jason and Beth, have decided to wait until the coronavirus pandemic eases so the family has a clearer outlook before deciding whether Jack should turn pro or return to Harvard next fall for his third year of university.
Rathbone’s hockey season, as well as all in-class instruction leading him towards a degree in psychology, abruptly ended last week due to COVID-19.
“It sucks, to be blunt,” he says. “You feel like you have more in the tank and you’re about to play some of your best, most exciting hockey of the year. And then for it to shut down like that, it’s brutal. You feel for the seniors the most — guys that want one last shot at making a run and they have that stripped from them. It hits hard for life just to kind of come to a halt. It’s something you’ve never experienced before. . . . but you know it’s the right thing to do.
“The Canucks have expressed interest (in having me turn pro) and that’s something I’m really excited about because it means I’m taking the right steps. But honestly, with everything going and how chaotic things are, and school stopping and hockey coming to an abrupt end like it has, my family and I just didn’t feel this is the right time to make that decision. It just didn’t feel right. We’re going to make that decision later on.”
Rathbone emphasizes that this doesn’t mean he’s returning to Harvard next fall, only that now is not the time for a life-changing decision.
“The dream I’ve had ever since I started playing hockey is to play in the NHL,” he says. “I think going to a school like Harvard, that decision, it allows me the option to do whatever I want to do. That is why I chose to go there. But it definitely shouldn’t be understated how much I want to be an NHL player.”
As a freshman last season, Rathbone had 22 points in 33 games, but benefitted by playing alongside Hobey Baker Award runner-up Adam Fox. This season, while Fox was amassing 42 points in 70 games as a 21-year-old NHL rookie with the New York Rangers, Rathbone was partnered mainly by freshman Ryan Siedem — and improved to 31 points in 28 games.
Rathbone is outstanding in transition, moving the puck on breakouts and skating to join the attack. Like Vancouver’s Calder Trophy candidate, Quinn Hughes, Rathbone’s skating allows him to recover defensively.
“We’ve really liked his development since we drafted him,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning says. “We think he’s going to be an exciting, young defenceman for us. He can move the puck up ice and join the rush. His defensive awareness is something he’s still working on, but he’s got a high hockey IQ. He’ll figure it out.”
“He reminds me a lot of Adam Gaudette,” Johnson says, referring to the fifth-round pick who played his way on to the Canucks from Northeastern University. “He looks you in the eyes and takes in information, and he’s going to do everything and anything he can to be an NHL player. He’s just a hockey player through and through.”
Rathbone grew up a Boston Bruins fan, and the player he resembles in build, grit and style is Bruins defenceman Torey Krug.
“Love him,” Rathbone, who is five-foot-11 and 190 pounds, says. “Love watching Torey Krug. I’ve heard that comparison. He’s an incredible player. Anytime the Bruins are on, I’m keying in on him. He’s a fun player to watch and someone I definitely model my game after.”
Rathbone is a role model, too. The best thing about staying home is spending time with Teddy, who is 11. The boys have a sister, Jayne, 18, who graduates this spring from the Dexter School, the preparatory academy Jack attended.
“He’s doing great,” Rathbone says of his little brother. “He’s making awesome progress, loving school. But he is excited that school is off for a little bit. He’s my best friend.”
Three years ago, just before he was drafted, Jack told the Boston Herald: “I hope to be a role model for him, but I don’t think he can learn any more from me than I learn from him. His personality and the attitude that he brings to everyday life, he gives me a new perspective. He’s what drives me every day to be able to chase the dream of playing in the NHL one day because I know that he can’t.”
That dream may be closer than anyone thinks.