DETROIT – For the first time since retiring after the 2010-11 season, former Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski will be back on the ice tonight when he skates in an ECHL game for the Florida Everblades.
But Friday afternoon, the three-time Stanley Cup winner and U.S. Olympian said his return isn’t so much about making a comeback as it is answering a higher calling.
“It’s not about what I want,” said Rafalski, in an exclusive interview with DetroitRedWings.com. “For the last two and a half years I’ve had no calling to (play hockey) and the people around me know that. I haven’t done much as far as training or anything. So God put this in my heart in early December and I’ve been praying, and He hasn’t told me not to continue. … All I can do is follow His will.”
Rafalski, 40, has worked closely with the ECHL club as the team’s chaplain the last two years, and one of his three sons plays on the Everblades’ youth team, which Rafalski helps coach.
He returned to Detroit last month to coach in a youth tournament and play in the Alumni Showdown, which was part of the Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park. But his participation in the exhibition against former Toronto Maple Leafs players did not give him the bug to rejuvenate a playing career.
“It had nothing to do with the alumni game,” Rafalski said. “God led me this way, in this direction and I’m just walking in and trying to follow in His will. I’m doing the best each day and trying to follow where He leads. This is something that I put in my heart about a month ago and I’ve been praying about daily.
“God can move mountains and He can sometimes move it by an anthill at a time and today is just another anthill.”
It will take some time for him to get back into hockey shape, Rafalski said, but that shouldn’t be too difficult for an elite player who had the reputation of being one of the league’s best puck-moving defensemen.
“It’s going to be difficult but that’s fine,” he said. “I felt better in practice this week than I did before Christmas. I feel like I finally have my legs underneath me a little bit.”
Last week, Rafalski asked for and received his release from Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, thus making the defenseman an unrestricted free agent should he seek a comeback to the league that he spent 11 seasons as a player.
“Yes, there were talks because he had to release me for me to play here,” Rafalski said of his conversation with Holland.
Asked if the Wings showed interest in him playing for their ECHL affiliate in Toledo, Rafalski said: “I’m not leaving (Florida). I have too many commitments here right now. There are those things that would have to be address. My family is established here with my two boys in school. They’re not going anywhere.”
The Everblades are a minor-league affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning.
A two-time All Star with the New Jersey Devils, Rafalski finished his NHL career with 79 goals and 515 points in 833 games. He produced 35 goals and 204 points in 292 regular-season games with the Red Wings.
Rafalski will skate in his first-ever ECHL game when the Everblades host the South Carolina Stingrays tonight at the Germain Arena in Estero which is about 20 miles south of Fort Myers. The two teams will meet again Saturday night, though Rafalski will be in Palm Beach where he will coach his son’s teams.
Rafalski doesn’t know where his minor-league journey will take him, and that’s fine as he prefers to face each challenge one day at a time.
“We live down here so it’s where God’s put me,” Rafalski said. “I don’t know where He’ll put me tomorrow no more than where you will know where you’re tomorrow versus 100 percent certainly. So where this leads I don’t know.”
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