Rafalski took unusual path to NHL
Undrafted defenseman first flourished in Europe
In 1994, Rafalski recorded 45 points during his senior collegiate season at the University of Wisconsin. Holland said he looked back at those numbers before heading to the Olympia Club at Joe Louis Arena.
“He was a great, tremendous point producer,” said Holland, referring to Rafalski, who retired after a remarkable NHL career that spanned 11 seasons and three Stanley Cup championships.
How was it that this swift-skating defenseman could not grab the attention of NHL scouts in the mid-1990s?
Rafalski was denied the typical path to the NHL, going undrafted. So the Dearborn, MIch., native did the next best thing: He played in Europe.
He played professionally for Brynas IF Gavle. After a season in the Swedish Elite League, Rafalski moved east where he played three seasons in the Finnish Elite League.
Playing in the country’s capital city, Rafalski flourished, recording 53 points in as many games with HIFK Helsinki in 1998-99. The Hockey News even proclaimed that Rafalski was, “The best defenseman not playing in the NHL”.
“Over there, it was year to year,” Rafalski said. “You had only yourself to look at and improve upon, because you’re basically playing for yourself and your family. You try to get as good as you can, so it was good for me to go over there. Without a multi-year contract, it was you better get better if you want to make more money.”
His strong performance in Finland garnered the attention of the New Jersey Devils, who signed Rafalski to a contract in the summer of 1999.
From that point, Rafalski established himself as one of the league’s top defensemen. As a member of the Devils and Red Wings, he recorded 515 points over 11 seasons, along with three Stanley Cup rings, and two Olympic silver medals with Team USA. He was even named the Most Outstanding Defenseman in the Vancouver Games in 2010.
“You think about a 5’8”, 5’9” defenseman who was never drafted and went to spend four years in Europe,” Holland said. “It was a great move by the New Jersey Devils in signing Brian Rafalski. That’s what the league is about, it’s about figuring out a way to develop players through drafting, developing, finding players, and free agency.”
Rafalski and Wings coach Mike Babcock said that other North American-born players have went to Europe and returned to the NHL to find success. Certainly Boston goalie Tim Thomas is a fine example. However, few others have found the consistent level of success that Rafalski earned upon his return.
“There’s tons of guys who have gone and done it,” Babcock said, “and yet, what I would say to you is that it allowed his skill set to improve, and his confidence to grow, so that when he came back, he was an impact player right away.
“There are a lot of guys; maybe Derek Meech will do it. There’s lots of guys people would consider undersized guys that have to be more skilled than your regular guy that might need more time.”
Of the top 30 American-born scorers this season, Rafalski is the only one to kick-start his NHL career in Europe.
Kris Draper, Rafalski’s teammate of four seasons, said that the defenseman’s journey should serve as an example for athletes of any age.
“It’s a great story for young hockey players,” Draper said. “Obviously everybody wants to get drafted, you want that day - you want to be acknowledged. But just because it doesn’t happen - if you believe in yourself and you continue to get better and work hard – good things can happen. Brian Rafalski is certainly one of those guys. “
AT A GLANCE: BRIAN RAFALSKI'S HOCKEY CAREER
|1995-96||Brynas IF Gavle||22||1||8||9||-||14|
|2001-02||Salt Lake City Olympics||6||1||2||3||2|