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Gophers Hockey: Senior Kyle Rau is a Minnesota hockey throwback

The Gopher hockey captain doesn't take the easy path while being the last bastion of staying in Minnesota to win and develop in high school and college.

Matt Christians

Of the many things in Minnesota forward Kyle Rau personifies, the senior captain for Minnesota sums up both versions of the Gopher Way.

Hidden throughout the University of Minnesota campus is a series of passageways called The Gopher Way.  It's not a pretty way to get around. Sometimes you end up taking a left when the building is at a right.

The corridors work their way underground between buildings and through parking garages, a hidden secret to the world besides those who know their usefulness in the cold, unforgiving Minneapolis winters.

While the corridor travel version leads people to their destination, the other Gopher Way - the one Minnesota head coach Don Lucia proudly proclaimed Rau was to begin the year - is one that goes to all corners of who the senior is as a person.

"Kyle is a team guy. He is a winner and he is driven. He's not a guy that talks a lot. He just is a guy that does it," Lucia said. "I like to use the term the Gopher Way - he does everything the Gopher Way that we like to see done.  The way you conduct yourself, the way you handle yourself whether it is with media or teammates, school, practice and games, you just know what you're going to get with Kyle Rau. It's nice to have those types of guys in the program."

Minnesota's Rau is a contrast in many ways yet also a throwback to a different era.

In spite of his listed 5'8", 175 lbs stature, Rau has made the area in front of the net his own throughout his college career. It is there he thrives, regularly competing against players half a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier to win battles.

Sometimes that switch is hard to turn off for him.  Off the ice, a conversation with Rau can occasionally feel like a continuation of the game on it where the Carlson School of Management student is looking to get back as soon as possible. Short sentences. Direct responses.  Leading with his actions rather than getting poetic with words about the game or himself, which are left to his teammates.

Perhaps it should be no surprise Rau has nearly 1000 followers on Twitter without a single tweet, saying "I don't really have anything to say to be honest."

Still, the senior's blue collar work ethic pays off in all three zones on the ice, mixing in his competitive streak with skill on face-offs (55.9%) and fancy stick handling in addition to being a top choice for the Gophers in all situations.

And it's that key word - Senior - which is another throwback. Rau is one of six seniors on this year's team, all of whom live with one another. When many top players in college hockey leave to go pro early, Rau, who scored 40 points in both his sophomore and junior seasons, returned to school for, in his words, "unfinished business."

Making the decision to come back to Minnesota rather than turn pro with the Florida Panthers, who drafted him in the third round of the 2011 NHL Draft after a national runner-up finish was one he admits was hard to decide.

"Florida's such a great organization. They've been awesome to me. I definitely hope to sign with them after this year," Rau said before the season, having made the decision to return a week before going down to South Florida.

He literally announced the decision to not go to South Beach on a beach.

"Yeah, that was an accident," he said about being caught off guard. "It happens."

It's not the first time Rau has taken the longer path, though. The Eden Prairie, MN native stayed in high school during the season when others left the state, hearkening to an era where the path of everyone in Minnesota hockey was direct from high school to college. Short of a dozen USHL games, he's the only player on the Gopher roster who didn't spend extra time developing in juniors or the US National Development Program.

The 22 year-old was rewarded with 2 Class AA championships at Eden Prairie and scoring the OT-winning goal his senior year on the Xcel Energy Center ice.

It's carried over to college. Of his 54 collegiate goals, 20 have been game-winners. Three of those have been in overtime, including one against Michigan that clinched the inaugural Big Ten regular season title.

Stepping away now Rau, who this week was one of 20 seniors nominated for the Senior CLASS Award, would have made his mark in Minnesota hockey. With only a twice-a-week building his professional network class left this semester before graduating with a degree in marketing, Rau is the last of the old school in a way the old school would like to be represented.

"It was challenging, but I'm glad I stuck it out. After hockey I'm pretty happy with what I've set myself up with and the cool about it has been to have the opportunity to be able to succeed," said Rau about being able to graduate from college.

Short of being drafted by the Wild and playing for them - something his older brother Chad did - he's hit everything. In perfect form the way those who appreciate his style would like, Rau is okay with being the last bastion of the old Minnesota model.

"I guess it's cool," he said. "Hopefully it works out so that will be nice to see here, hopefully we can win it all, but I think it's just okay that I have that kind of reputation."

This year so far has not gone to the high expectations everyone had for the preseason consensus #1. With 21 points in 20 games, Rau has 144 over his four years - more than any Minnesota player who spent the entire 21st Century in maroon and gold besides Troy Riddle.

However, the Gophers are 11-7-2 overall and returning to Xcel Energy Center this weekend for the North Star College Cup. Rather than enter the four team tournament as the top Minnesota school in the "State of Hockey" the University of Minnesota is third on paper.

Minnesota-Duluth, which swept the Gophers in November, is fifth in the Pairwise rankings mimicking the NCAA Tournament criteria and 2nd in the NCHC. Tonight's opponent, Minnesota State, is in the position many thought Minnesota would be in around mid-January. The Mavericks are 13-1-1 in its last 15 games and the WCHA leaders hold the top overall seed in the Pairwise rankings. (The fourth team in this year's North Star College Cup, Bemidji State, is 7-12-3 and 7th of 10 teams in the WCHA.)

Minnesota, meanwhile, is 19th in the Pairwise. The Gophers would not receive an at-large bid to the 16 team tournament. No team in the six-team Big Ten conference would, making the North Star that much more important as a test as it is a celebration of college hockey in the state.

This weekend is a chance on a rink the Gophers has had success in the past to continue the process of building a team towards that goal which hopefully isn't too little, too late.

The process is something Rau has continually mentioned throughout his 2nd season wearing the captain's "C." Having put in the hard work before as a team, doing so again this year and knowing there are no guarantees to end his Minnesota career with the storybook ending, he is looking at the effort his team has put in recently and building to the end of the year.

"I wouldn't call it a challenge. It's kind of almost good in a way if we can keep climbing and going in the right direction. I've said it before," Rau said.  "You don't want to be peaking right now in January. You don't want to be peaking in February. You want to be getting there in March and going good in April. It's a process, but we have got time.

"We're getting better and I think everyone knows that. If you look at that and you look at our numbers, our biggest focus has been (limiting) turnovers and getting shots and we've been doing that."

He may play near the net, but there are no shortcuts with Kyle Rau. His plan is over the long-term to do things The Gopher Way.

Sometimes that path less traveled and just out of the way is the better one.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --