Rafalski retires after 11 seasons
Ex-mates say Raffy's Hall of Fame material
|Rafalski raises the 2003 Stanley Cup with Scott Gomez.|
To Rafalski, retirement is less an end to his playing days than the beginning of life after hockey. He weighed the move during the season before making his final decision.
“I’ve had a few people express sadness to me regarding this decision and we as a family are not looking at it like that,” Rafalski said during a morning press conference. “We’re looking at it as a great opportunity.”
Rafalski, 37, was hampered by injuries this season, yet still managed 48 points in 63 regular-season games with Detroit.
The Red Wings nearly made history in the playoffs, forcing a Game 7 in their second-round meeting with San Jose after falling behind 0-3. Their comeback ended with a 3-2 loss in the finale.
Rafalski's list of achievements includes three Stanley Cup titles (two in New Jersey, one in Detroit), two Olympic silver medals with Team USA, and three selections for the NHL All-Star Game.
Never drafted, the native of Dearborn, Mich., built a career that's Hall-of-Fame worthy.
“Why not?” ex-Devil Scott Gomez told newjerseydevils.com. “If you look at Raffy’s resume with the Cups, a couple of medals, All-Star games, and if you really know hockey, he was that good. He was that good a player.”
Overall, he finishes with 79 goals and 436 assists for 515 points and a plus-178 in 833 career contests.
He made an even bigger impact in the postseason, where his 29 goals, 71 assists and 100 points each ranks second among U.S.-born defensemen only to Chris Chelios. His plus-42 is tops all-time for American blueliners.
Though he still had a year remaining on his contract with the Wings, injuries had taken their toll.
“There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” Rafalski said. “That gets tiring. But at the same time, the training staff has done an excellent job and it played a role. I wasn’t able to skate the way I would like to. It really made me adjust how I played the game this year.”
|Rafalski was a three-time Olympian with Team USA.|
"We looked at every aspect of our lives and with a son going to be a freshman next year in high school, it was a big factor," he said. "What I’ll be doing first and foremost is serving my family. I’ll be definitely looking to help others. I don’t know what that’s going to entail yet, but that was going to be my focus."
Rafalski was one of four rookies on the Devils’ 2000 Cup squad, along with Gomez, John Madden and Colin White. His puck-moving skills complemented his partnership with Scott Stevens.
White watched the Wings during this year’s playoffs and felt Rafalski still had plenty left in the tank.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘This guy might play until he’s 42,’” White said Wednesday after working out at Prudential Center. “He looked great. I know he had an injury, I haven’t talked to him much this year, but I was just surprised. He looked so good in the playoffs that it didn’t cross my mind that that was even a thought.”
Gomez called it “weird” to see a player he came up with reach retirement, but agreed that Rafalski is going out at the top of his game.
“I think he’s one of the top five D in the League,” said Gomez, who was also Rafalski's Olympic teammate in 2006. “I know the way he keeps himself in shape and he can obviously still play and dominate. It’s a little bit of a shock, but it’s Raffy. You never knew what to expect. It’s such a great thing that he can just walk away in his prime. I’m sure he’s happy about it so it’s good for him.”
After four seasons at Wisconsin (WCHA), Rafalski spent a campaign in Sweden before heading to Finland. In 1998-99, his third and final season there, he amassed 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) in 53 games with HIFK Helsinki.
"It gave me an opportunity to work on my skill game and play with some great players," Rafalski said. "There were so many players that I played with in those four years that have made it to the NHL and it’s good to see."
Rafalski, then 25, signed with the Devils as a free agent on June 18, 1999. Listed at 5-10, 195 lbs., he proved that size on the blue line isn't everything.
“I was down here all summer training and I knew there was one spot open on D,” White recalled. “Obviously, I was hoping that was me. Then there was talk of this guy coming from Europe, the best defenseman outside the NHL. I remember reading about it and hearing about it. I remember phoning my wife at the time and saying, ‘Well, I met this new defenseman today, but don’t worry – he’s small.’
"Then I saw him that first day on the ice and I phoned her back and I said, ‘I don’t know. This guy’s pretty good.’ He stuck, and eventually, later on in the year, I did get called up and we finished that year with a Stanley Cup.”
Rafalski stood out on the very first day of camp.
“You could tell he was a special one,” Gomez said. “I just remember going one-on-one with him and it was almost impossible all those years. It says a lot for the Devils and Lou [Lamoriello] that the players they got, especially that class.
“He had established himself 20 games in that he wasn’t a rookie. It’s amazing how every year he got better and better and better. He was one of the best U.S. d-men ever, that’s for sure.”
Rafalski and the Devils returned to the Finals in 2001, losing in seven to Colorado, then captured their third championship in 2003. He won the Cup again with Detroit in 2008 and the next year made his fifth trip to the Finals in nine seasons.
“That’s pretty impressive, and he was in two Game 7s that he lost or he could’ve had five Cups in 10 years,” White said. “That would’ve been crazy. But still, what a career: a 50-point guy as a defenseman four times. His numbers are crazy.”
Good enough for the Hall of Fame?
“If it was up to me, yeah, for sure,” White said. “Just being a part of his experience in the NHL, just seeing him, watching him. He came in his rookie year and he was pretty much already a veteran. That rookie year, he was so confident, so poised. I think that coming in at an older age helped him too – he was ready for the NHL. But he’d definitely get my vote, that’s for sure.”
Rafalski represented the U.S. in the Olympics three times, totalling 13 points in 17 games.
"Obviously the Olympics were great experiences," Rafalski said. "The success I’ve have had in the three to get two medals was terrific, and with two different types of teams. The first time with an older, experience-laden team, and the second time with a new group of young players, new stars that were coming up. The future looks so bright for USA hockey."
Whether it was the NHL or the Olympics, wherever Rafalski went, success followed.
“It just shows you Raffy was a winner,” said Gomez. “The bigger the game, the bigger he played and it shows. His track record, he’s definitely leaving with a pretty impressive resume.”