MASON CITY, Iowa – North Iowa Bulls forward Carter Rapalje, at your service.
When the Bulls needed someone to serve in a big role – to lead on the ice, or to deliver a goal in a big moment – he was at the top of the list of guys who could get it done. When the Mason City Arena ice belonged to the younger kids just learning the game, Rapalje was there ready to serve again.
The Burlington, Vermont native closed his junior hockey career earlier this month, playing two full seasons in the Bulls organization after a four-year developmental run in the Colorado Rampage AAA program. He started out his junior career with a brief three-game run in Amarillo during the 2019-20 season before coming back for a full season in Amarillo last year. Playing under current Lincoln Stars head coach Rocky Russo, Rapalje scored eight points over 41 games, helping the Bulls to a third-place finish in the North American Hockey League’s South Division and a four-game playoff battle with the eventual Robertson Cup championship Shreveport Mudbugs.
“The Rampage organization [had] a good relationship with the Amarillo coaches, and they were able to set up an opportunity for me and a couple of my teammates to go down and practice with the team (in 2019-20),” Rapalje told Colorado Rubber Hockey Magazine’s Matt Mackinder this past November. “The coaches told me they liked how I played and offered me a tender agreement for the next season (2020-21).”
In early March, the Amarillo Bulls announced an impending relocation to Mason City, meaning Rapalje’s next season as a Bull would come in the Midwest, in a brand-new town, against brand-new opponents.
“It was confusing. I didn’t know much about Mason City before I got here,” said Rapalje. “It’s been fun – with a transition (like this), you get to a new city, new billets, new fans and a new community. It’s definitely colder here, so I had to get more cold-weather clothes.”
He didn’t take long to get settled in, though it took a little while for the success to come on home ice. Rapalje scored his first six goals as a North Iowa Bull away from Mason City, including three game-winners in the team’s first 10 games on the ice. Only three Bulls – none in the last five years – have reached three game-winning goals earlier in the season than Rapalje did in 2021-22.
On November 5, he burst onto the hockey scene at home, exploding for four goals in a 6-4 win over the Bismarck Bobcats, earning the team’s first hat trick in the North American Hockey League. He followed up that game with another goal and an assist the following night, earning the Central Division’s Star of the Week award for his efforts. By the end of the season, Rapalje had racked up a team-high 28 goals, including goals in five straight games to close out the month of March, another team-best.
Rapalje may have set a team-high in volunteer hours as well, putting in countless hours at the arena throughout the season with learn-to-skate and Try Hockey For Free sessions. Even a jaw injury that kept him out for more than a month during the heart of the season didn’t slow him down much, though it did create some challenges.
“I couldn’t talk for two weeks. I had my jaw wired shut,” said Rapalje. “I went home to my family, and when I was able to get the wires off and be able to talk again, it was good, but I wasn’t able to do anything with the guys or anything with the community. It was a hard two weeks, but the guys helped a lot.”
He focused on putting in the extra offensive work ahead of his final season of junior hockey, and though he hasn’t announced a college commitment just yet, one is sure to come during the offseason. He notes his success couldn’t have come without a little help from his friends – linemate Michael Mesic would lead the team in scoring with 49 points, the league’s highest scoring mark by a 17-year-old in five years. On the other wing was either Logan Dombrowsky, who notched 37 points despite his own stint on the injury list, or Byron Hartley, whose 20 goals placed him second on the team behind Rapalje.
“It’s been those guys feeding me the puck and putting it in the back of the net,” said Rapalje. “I put in a lot of work last summer, trying to score more, and putting myself in better positions, and I think I did a good job of that this year.”