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Rickard Rakell is one Duck who knows how to paddle

Rickard Rakell is one Duck who knows how to paddle
Ducks centerRickard Rakellgets set for a faceoff during a game against the Flyers. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

Ask Rickard Rakell about one of his favorite players growing up and his eyes will get wide, the admiration evident in his voice.

Rakell remembers seeing the player's skill and intense desire as a kid in Sweden and how it influenced his hockey career, now in full bloom with the Ducks. But he's not referring to Peter Forsberg or Nicklas Lidstrom or any other famous Swedish hockey player.

It's his late grandfather, Ake, whose table tennis career was highlighted by a bronze medal in men's doubles in the 1959 world championships. Some of Rakell's best boyhood memories are playing against his grandfather, who could still bring it late in life.

"He was so good," Rakell said. "He was so passionate about table tennis, the attention to details. He wouldn't let us touch any of his paddles. He's so competitive. Me, my brother [Robin], my sister [Rebecka], 10 to 12 years old and he wouldn't give us a chance to win."

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Although he was officially known by his first name, Ake, Rakell said he went by Gunnar, a more colorful name considering he almost sounds like a character out of "The Big Lebowski."

"He was always wearing his track suit, carrying his paddle with him in case there was a table around to play," Rakell said. "Even though he was 70, 75 years old, he would still go down to the club there and play. It was fun to watch and to see his love for the sport. To see someone just love it that much and do everything they can to be the best they can, maybe that reflected on how much I love hockey."

Rakell played tennis and soccer until he was 14 before he turned his full attention to hockey. But he said some aspects of table tennis translate to hockey, specifically hand-eye coordination.

It's easy to see why Rakell has perhaps the best hands on the Ducks. He's often been a highlight reel this season with in-close backhand shots to the top of the net and stick-handles that turn defenders inside out. He had a beauty Friday night to beat Edmonton in overtime.

"That's Raks in a nutshell," linemate Corey Perry said. "His vision. His hands. His ability to see the ice is pretty slick."

Rakell, 22, was expected to break out this season, but he probably has exceeded expectations. His 16 goals are a career high and he's on pace for 22. That's related to the strong chemistry he has developed with Perry on his wing, which stems from an experiment that Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau tried during training camp and resumed last month when he split up Perry and usual linemate Ryan Getzlaf.

Ake "Gunnar" Rakell was a champion table tennis player who won a bronze medal at the 1959 world championships when playing doubles.
Ake "Gunnar" Rakell was a champion table tennis player who won a bronze medal at the 1959 world championships when playing doubles.

"It's just evolved," Perry said. "He can make plays. He can get to the net. He can shoot the puck. When you have that type of player playing with confidence, he's definitely on his way up."

That confidence was aided by Boudreau, who has increased Rakell's playing time from the 12 1/2 minutes a game he averaged last season to more than 16 minutes this season.

"I get more trust from the coaches and get put in different situations in close games where we're trying to come back," Rakell said. "That's all I ever wanted. You're never satisfied, really, but there's things that I can work on. I want to play 25 minutes a game, but I'm happy with how it is right now and I just want to keep going."

It has been a relatively quick evolution for Rakell, who left Sweden at 16 to play junior hockey in Canada. He adapted well to the smaller North American rink, a transition that sometimes takes longer for European players.

That precociousness was evident when Boudreau first saw Rakell as an 18-year-old.

"You could tell he was a smooth skater and [had] a good shot," Boudreau said. "Offensively, I remember this: He went to the right spots early on."

Rakell could be in Toronto for the World Cup this summer. Johan Garpenlov, an assistant coach for the Swedish national team, was at a Ducks game Feb. 21 and told a Swedish radio station that Rakell was a big surprise.

Rakell said it would be a "super, great experience" but it wasn't immediately on his mind. He usually spends his summers playing table tennis two or three hours a day with his family in Sweden.

A lot of NHL teams have a tennis table in their dressing room for recreation, but the Ducks do not. Teammate and countryman Hampus Lindholm said that's probably just as well, because they played on the road once "and me and Raks were kind of beating the other guys."

Judging by his reaction, Rakell wouldn't mind some pregame matches at the table.

"I wish we had one," Rakell said. "I'd be at the rink all day."

DUCKS NEXT UP

VS. KINGS

When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

On the air: TV: NBCSN; Radio: 830

Update: Defenseman Rob Scuderi played his first game back with the Kings on Saturday after he was acquired from Chicago for Christian Ehrhoff. Scuderi, 37, learned of the trade in Cleveland while with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League. "I was definitely the happiest guy in Cleveland," Scuderi said. "It's nice to come back to some familiar faces in a familiar environment where I had some success, and I'd like to have some more."

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