Across the pond hockey
Brian Rafalski knew the traditional road to the NHL involved a trip to the minors after he graduated from the University of Wisconsin. But, for various reasons, that route did not appeal to him.
Much like the traveler in Robert Frost's masterful poem, The Road Not Taken, Rafalski paused in his life's journey, debating the merits of the next move in his quest to become an NHL player.
He meticulously studied the pros and cons of each option and then picked the less-traveled of routes -- starting his professional career in Europe.
And, like the unnamed traveler in Frost's famous 20-line poem, Rafalski's choice in paths has made all the difference in his career.
Not only did Rafalski's path eventually lead to the NHL, it highlighted a new avenue for other NHL wannabes not entirely seduced by the well-worn paths of the Canadian junior hockey system or North America's myriad of minor-league hockey stops.
"Even when Brian did it, he was still no lock [to make the NHL]," says Bill Zito Jr., Rafalski's agent and a prime player in setting up Rafalski's first European posting with Brynas of Finland's Elite League. "Brian was a good hockey player and he had the core elements to play in the NHL -- he had the skating ability and the hockey sense.
"What happened with Brian is he was able to use the extra ice, the extra skating room and the extra practice [in Finland]. It allowed him to develop his skating stride and hockey sense even more. That led him to get more confidence in his game because he had more options. If he couldn't skate by a guy, now he could make the good pass to break out of the zone. That allowed him to develop even more poise. That, in turn, made him more attractive to NHL scouts."
Everyone knows the rest of the Rafalski story -- he parlayed a solid showing with Sweden's HIFK Helsinki into a free-agent contract with the Devils. In his first season, he became a mainstay on the team's blue line and played an integral role in the franchise's second Stanley Cup championship. Today, he is considered one of the game's elite offensive defensemen.
With that example before them, more and more young North American players see time in Europe as a key part of their development as an elite player and point proudly to the international experience on their resume. No longer do they feel trapped by the confines of the traditional developmental system.
Such willingness to accept a less mainstream path to NHL glory is showing more and more promise each year as the success stories come to the forefront.
Boston goalie Tim Thomas is a prime example.
An All-America performer at the University of Vermont, Thomas could not get a decent look after being taken by the Quebec Nordiques, now the Colorado Avalanche, in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.
So, he packed his bags and set course for his own European adventure. Another Zito Jr. client, Thomas landed in HIFK Helsinki and had a season to remember, spearheading Helsinki to the Finnish championship. Thomas played another year with HIFK and a year with Sweden's Solna before hooking up with Boston. Last season, after just missing making the big club out of camp, Thomas returned to Finland for a season with Karpat.
All of that European training paid off this season as Thomas overcame a hernia during the summer to make his NHL debut with the Bruins, winning two games in two appearances while John Grahame was on the shelf with an injury. Now, he is honing his skills with Providence, the Bruins' American Hockey League affiliate.
"Over there, it's what you make of it," says Thomas, who has 143 games of European league experience under his belt. "You'll have a lot of ice time and a lot of opportunity to work on your game."
It is exactly those conditions that make the European experience so conducive for developing players. Especially in Sweden and Finland, the amount of practice and time spent developing skills is infinitely greater than in the North American systems, where more emphasis is placed on strength development and competition.