Flyers have picked a winner in Raffl

Posted: December 31, 2013

VANCOUVER - To say December has been a big month for Michael Raffl would be an enormous understatement.

Three days ago, Michael Raffl received the biggest phone call of his season - from Manny Viveiros, coach of the Austrian national team, letting him know that he was picked to represent his country in the upcoming Olympics.

About 3 weeks before that, Raffl was notified by the Flyers that he would be sticking around for a while - he could finally select an apartment in the area. After living in a South Jersey hotel for 3 months, it was time.

On the surface, both of those events seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Raffl, 25, is one of only three Austrian natives to play in the NHL this season, including the Islanders' Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner.

He has also been a catalyst on the Flyers' scorching-hot first line with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, meaning there would be little reason to be bounced out of the lineup anytime soon.

Yet, Raffl takes nothing - not even the smallest of decisions or opportunities - for granted.

"You never get comfortable with anything here," Raffl said yesterday. "I'm still on a two-way [contract], so they can basically tell me at anytime they're going to send me down. It's nice to have a place now, but it's still nothing to make me comfortable."

Raffl picked up an assist last night in the first period against the Canucks when Mark Streit hammered in the rebound from his hard drive to the net. It was Raffl's sixth point in eight games since being installed on the line with Giroux and Voracek.

Giroux got the puck to Raffl, pushing his career-high points streak to nine games on the play.

He added another assist in the second period on Giroux's breakaway goal.

No number of points or even a contract extension will seemingly make Raffl less paranoid, less hungry.

"Four bad games in a row, I'm still going to be scared I'm going to get sent down, that I'll be told I'm not good enough," Raffl said. "I don't know how to say it properly in English, but I can't feel too satisfied with what I have. I need to work hard and get better.

"I don't even know if that feeling makes me normal."

Raffl will have a large sense of pride, however, in playing in his country's first Olympic hockey entry since they finished 12th in Salt Lake City in 2002. Austria failed to qualify in 2006 and 2010.

"It's going to be something fun and special," Raffl said. "As an Austrian hockey player, I'm not sure how many more chances I'm going to have to play in the Olympics. It's really good for hockey in Austria, for the whole country, to get the team in there.

"Players in the Austrian league to get to play against the top players in the world - I'm sure if I played there, I would never forget that."

Austria is a country of 8 million people nestled in Europe's Alps. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are 10,721 registered male hockey players of any age in Austria.

Along with Vanek, Grabner and former Flyer Andreas Nodl, Raffl helped knock off host Germany - a country 10 times its size - in a final Olympic qualification tournament last February. The Germans had made 16 straight Olympic hockey tournament appearances prior to being ousted by Austria.

Only three countries with a smaller number of registered male hockey players will be a part of the 12-team field in Russia in February: Slovenia (835 players), Latvia (4,500) and Norway (6,256). Other enormous countries like Ukraine (44 million population), Denmark, France and Belarus failed to qualify.

In Sochi, Raffl will play in the same division as Canada, Finland and Norway. That means Raffl is expected to face off against Claude Giroux (Canada) and Kimmo Timonen (Finland) in the round-robin tournament. Raffl's other linemate, Jake Voracek, will play for the Czech Republic and Andrej Meszaros will suit up for Slovakia.

Timonen, 38, will be playing in his fifth Olympic Winter Games. Canada is expected to win the group, but Raffl understands what making it to Russia means.

"The coach basically told me that he thinks we're going to have a good team and we need to try our best," Raffl said. "I played in the tournament that we won to get a spot there. I know how big of an accomplishment it is just to be there."

Soccer is the big sport in Austria. In the winter, hockey can often be dwarfed by skiing. Austria's professional hockey league - in which his father, Peter, played "many years ago" - is struggling.

"If you compare us to Switzerland, that was an even matchup 10 years ago," Raffl said. "We're going in the wrong direction. They allow 10 import [players] per team, Canadians and countries like that. So they take up the top two lines and Austrians have no where to play - that league doesn't even play third and fourth lines. They don't force Austrians to play and get better."

Through Sweden's second tier professional league, Raffl has arrived on hockey's biggest stage. Just don't tell him that.

"This is one step in the right direction for me," Raffl said. "I feel good. At the same time, I think I can do better."

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