By Jeff Johnson – The Gazette

There are only a handful of rinks in his home country.

“Maybe five or six,” Robert Arrak said. “We’ve got maybe five, six, seven teams.”

The accurate number is four teams that play in Estonia’s highest league. Let’s just say this kid definitely is the exception.

A hockey player.

“It’s not big there,” the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward said. “My father played, my brother played, so I decided to try it, too. I was really young when I started skating. Like 3 years old.”

Here he is playing in the top junior league in the United States, with aspirations of someday playing college hockey. Ascending beyond college hockey, to tell the truth.

The tall and lanky 17-year-old is on the Central Scouting Service’s list of European players available for the 2017 National Hockey League Draft. He’s a “C” prospect, or someone projected to possibly be selected in the middle to lower rounds.

That’s why he’s here, actually. If you want to play in the NHL, you move closer to it.

“There are more scouts and coaches watching games from the NHL and college hockey here,” Arrak said.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder only has played in four games with the RoughRiders, but it appears Coach/General Manager Mark Carlson pulled off quite the coup when he convinced Arrak to make the move a couple of weeks ago from his junior team in Finland. Arrak has shown off a slick, skilled and advanced game, including notching the winning goal this past weekend against Madison.

Cedar Rapids (3-16-2) plays a road game Thursday night against the older of the United States National Team Development Program’s two teams, then is at Youngstown on Friday and Saturday nights.

“He’s a ballplayer,” smiled Carlson.

That’s hockey speak for someone who is good.

“He’s got a good attitude,” Carlson said. “I think he wants to get better every day. He’s working really hard. I think he’s got the chance to be a really well-rounded player. He shoots well, sees the ice, he’s good pretty good hands, can shoot it. He’s a young kid, so he’s got a long way to go. But there is a lot of upside there.”

“I love this place,” Arrak said. “It’s a good place, good guys on the team. It is a good league here, the USHL. Good games.”

Arrak had been in the U.S. only once prior to making the move to Cedar Rapids. That was to a camp in the Detroit area.

He speaks good English, thanks to studying it in school when he was young. He has spent the last handful of years playing in neighboring Finland, away from his family in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.

“It wasn’t that hard to convince him to come here,” Carlson said. “I think he understood the opportunity here and the exposure. He wants to play in the National Hockey League, and he felt the United States Hockey League was the best league to play in. This is the best opportunity for him to keep growing.”

Carlson was asked if it was realistic to think Arrak could someday be his country’s second NHL player. Leo Komarov of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the only Estonian-born player to make it to the NHL thus far.

“That’s a long ways away,” he said. “But I think he’s got a realistic shot to get drafted. It’s up to him as to how hard he wants to work.”

Cedar Rapids has won three games in a row after an 18-game losing streak to begin the season. That includes a sweep of Madison, 4-1 and 2-1, last weekend.

“The kids are working,” Carlson said. “I think we’ve played some pretty good hockey here the last couple three weeks. We’re chipping away.”