Toni Rajala was a 13-year-old youth league player in Finland when the National Hockey League implemented rules changes that would benefit him years later.
Labeled too small by some scouts, the 5-foot-9, 163-pound right winger has produced at every level, including a successful 29-game stint with the Oklahoma City Barons following a midseason promotion.
NHL officials in 2004-05 decided on strict enforcement of hooking, holding and other forms of obstruction. Two-line passes were legalized. Changes placed more emphasis on speed, creating more space for players of all sizes.
“It allowed guys like Rajala that have great speed and skill to maneuver a little more,” said Barons general manager Bill Scott. “Sometimes a player with his size gets overlooked. But he knows how to create offense. He has great vision and really good hands.”
Rajala (pronounced rye-ALL-uh) relies on speed, quickness and stickhandling.
In a recent shootout Rajala spun completely around to try and beat Rockford goaltender Carter Hutton.
“He's a very creative skill player,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Let's face it he's not a very big guy so he relies on his creativity. He has deceiving speed. And he makes smart plays with the puck.”
To eventually reach the NHL Rajala must add weight. The key is putting on muscle without sacrificing speed or quickness.
“It's a fine line how to train the right way,” Scott said. “Small guys have to have a strong center of gravity to push through with your legs so you can fight through checks. Those are things Toni needs to work on. But he's young.”
Rajala turns 22 next week. He realizes he possibly could play in Oklahoma City another year or two before he's given a shot at playing in the NHL, a dream he's had since age 7.
“Of course I need to get stronger,” Rajala said. “But it's not something you can do when the season is on. That's what I'll work on hard this summer. I'm still a young player. I don't want to get in too much of a hurry. And I still need to keep that burst.”
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ROCHESTER vs. BARONS
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Cox Convention Center.
Tickets: Starting as low as $10 at box office or by calling (405) 232-GOAL.
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1, Jim Byers play-by-play.
Scouting report: Oklahoma City is in ninth place in the Western Conference, one point out of eighth, the final playoff berth. ... Rochester is in sixth, two points in front of the Barons. ... OKC signed defenseman Kendall McFaull on Monday. McFaull has played the past four seasons with Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League. ... Yann Danis, the Barons top goaltender, has returned after a brief stint in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. ... The Americans, the Triple-A affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, are led by Mark Mancari, who has 55 points, including 36 assists.