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Rafalski took unusual path to NHL

Undrafted defenseman first flourished in Europe

Wednesday, 05.25.2011 / 9:52 AM ET / 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

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - NYR 82 53 22 7 248 187 113
2 y - MTL 82 50 22 10 214 184 110
3 x - TBL 82 50 24 8 259 206 108
4 x - WSH 82 45 26 11 237 199 101
5 x - NYI 82 47 28 7 245 224 101
6 x - DET 82 43 25 14 231 211 100
7 x - OTT 82 43 26 13 232 208 99
8 x - PIT 82 43 27 12 217 204 98
9 BOS 82 41 27 14 209 201 96
10 FLA 82 38 29 15 198 213 91
11 CBJ 82 42 35 5 227 248 89
12 PHI 82 33 31 18 212 223 84
13 NJD 82 32 36 14 176 209 78
14 CAR 82 30 41 11 183 219 71
15 TOR 82 30 44 8 206 257 68
16 BUF 82 23 51 8 153 269 54

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
H. Zetterberg 77 17 49 -6 66
P. Datsyuk 63 26 39 12 65
T. Tatar 82 29 27 6 56
G. Nyquist 82 27 27 -11 54
J. Abdelkader 71 23 21 3 44
N. Kronwall 80 9 35 -4 44
R. Sheahan 79 13 23 -3 36
D. Helm 75 15 18 7 33
D. DeKeyser 80 2 29 11 31
S. Weiss 52 9 16 -2 25
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
J. Howard 23 13 11 .910 2.44
P. Mrazek 16 9 2 .918 2.38

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