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Rafalski took unusual path to NHL

Undrafted defenseman first flourished in Europe

Wednesday, 05.25.2011 / 9:52 AM / News
By Michael Caples  - Detroit Red Wings Staff Writer
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Rafalski took unusual path to NHL
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DETROIT – As Ken Holland prepared for Wednesday’s news conference to announce the early retirement of Brian Rafalski, the Red Wings’ general manager marveled at the path taken by the veteran defenseman.

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

Season Team Lge GP G A Pts +/- PIM
1990-91 Madison Capitols 47 12 11 23 - 28
1991-92 Wisconsin 38 3 16 19 - 40
1991-92 World Juniors 7 0 1 1 - 2
1992-93 Wisconsin 32 0 13 13 - 10
1992-93 World Juniors 7 0 2 2 - 2
1993-94 Wisconsin 37 6 17 23 - 26
1994-95 Wisconsin 43 11 34 45 - 48
1994-95 World Championship 5 0 0 0 - 2
1995-96 Brynas IF Gavle 22 1 8 9 - 14
1996-97 HPK Hameenlinna 49 11 24 35 24 26
1997-98 HIFK Helsinki 40 13 10 23 0 20
1998-99 HIFK Helsinki 53 19 34 53 38 18
1998-99 World Championship 3 0 1 1 - 0
1999-00 New Jersey 75 5 27 32 21 28
2000-01 New Jersey 78 9 43 52 36 26
2001-02 New Jersey 76 7 40 47 15 18
2001-02 Salt Lake City Olympics 6 1 2 3 2
2002-03 New Jersey 79 3 37 40 18 14
2003-04 New Jersey 69 6 30 36 6 24
2004-05 World Cup 4 0 3 3 3 6
2005-06 New Jersey 82 6 43 49 0 36
2005-06 Turin Olympics 5 0 2 2 0
2006-07 New Jersey 82 8 47 55 4 34
2007-08 Detroit 73 13 42 55 27 34
2008-09 Detroit 78 10 49 59 17 20
2009-10 Detroit 78 8 34 42 23 26
2009-10 Vancouver Olympics 6 4 4 8 2
2010-11 Detroit 63 4 44 48 11 22
TOTALS New Jersey 541 44 267 311 100 180
TOTALS Detroit 292 35 169 204 78 102

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