-- Just about everybody outside of his family who was informed of Brian Rafalski
's decision to retire from hockey had the same, basic reaction.
There was silence, followed by a one-word question: "What?"
Rafalski, a 37-year old defenseman, still had one year left on a five-year contract that he signed in 2007 with the Detroit Red Wings
that would've paid him $6 million. His production hadn't slipped, despite a frustrating season wrought with nagging injuries to his knee and back.
The veteran puck-moving blueliner tallied 4 goals and 48 points in 63 games played in the regular season and Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland already had him penciled into the top four defensemen on his team for the 2012 season.
Good thing he used pencil, because Rafalski used a pen in Holland's office at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday morning to sign his retirement papers and make it official. Afterward, he talked about his reasoning in front of family, friends, Red Wings management and the media.
"The decision was made between myself and my wife approximately two months ago," Rafalski said. "We went through a long process of weighing different factors in our lives and at the end of the day it came down to priorities -- with the top three priorities being serving God, serving my family and serving others. Hockey not being at the top, it was time for me to move on."
Needless to say, the decision caught most people by surprise -- including his agent, Bill Zito, who's represented Rafalski for his entire 15-year professional hockey career that included the first four playing in Europe after going unselected in the Entry Draft.
"When he told me, I was like, 'What?'" Zito told NHL.com on Wednesday by phone. "It's ingrained. The NHL is a privilege. You play as long as you can play. It's just a wonderful experience and you get all of it that you can get. You look at his points-per-game this season and he was still among the best in the game. So in that regard, it was a big surprise. Then you talk to him for even a few minutes and it all just makes sense."
As he did at the podium on Wednesday, Rafalski explained to Zito and Holland his rationale earlier this week.
"He just said, 'I've accomplished a lot in my career, I'm getting banged up but I'm still healthy, and I talked to my wife and I'm thinking about making a commitment to my family and my kids,'" Zito said. "When you think about it, there's not much that he hasn't accomplished."
That in itself is a remarkable anecdote about Rafalski's hockey career.
After a standout senior season at the University of Wisconsin, the Dearborn, Mich., native wasn't drafted. He went to Europe to prove himself and wound up playing with the likes of future NHL stars Kimmo Timonen
and goalie Tim Thomas
-- a native of Saginaw, Mich., who's still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup this season with the Boston Bruins
His first big opportunity came with the New Jersey Devils
, whom he played with for the first seven years of an 11-year NHL career, beginning with the 1999-2000 season. In all, Rafalski played in 541 regular-season games with the Devils, amassing 44 goals and 311 points, while helping New Jersey win two Stanley Cups, including one in his rookie season.
"Brian is a quality individual, whose character, commitment, work ethic, and team-first attitude made him the player and person he is," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said in a statement released by the team. "We were fortunate to have him in a Devils' sweater for seven seasons, including two Stanley Cup Championships. We wish Brian, Felicity, and their three sons well as they move on to the next chapter in their lives."
Rafalski joined the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent in 2007 and teamed with star Nicklas Lidstrom
to form a dynamic duo on the blue line. He helped Detroit win the Cup in 2008 and then helped the Wings get to Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins
"He played with a lot of passion, had a tremendous amount of speed, especially in 2008 and 2009 before he got banged up with a lot of injuries. Obviously he's been beat up pretty good the last year or two with the injuries to his knee and his back. Age has caught up to him, but certainly he's had a tremendous career."
-- Red Wings' GM Ken Holland
Rafalski played 292 regular-season games for the Red Wings and recorded 204 points (35 goals, 169 assists), while adding 40 points (12 G, 28 A) in 63 playoff games for Detroit.
In all, he played in five Stanley Cup Final series and recorded 29 goals and 100 points in 165 career playoff games. He also finishes his career with 79 goals and 515 points in 833 regular-season games -- not to mention playing in three Olympics for Team USA and winning two silver medals.
"He's an incredible story," Holland said. "He's a tremendous role model for smallish defensemen out there that aren't sure if there's an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. He played with a lot of passion, had a tremendous amount of speed, especially in 2008 and 2009 before he got banged up with a lot of injuries. Obviously he's been beat up pretty good the last year or two with the injuries to his knee and his back. Age has caught up to him, but certainly he's had a tremendous career."
Rafalski cited those injuries as another factor in his decision to call it quits. This season, he battled nagging pain all season -- even into the playoffs, to the point where he skipped morning skates to rest his swollen knee and aching back.
"The injuries took a toll," he said. "There wasn't a day this year that I wasn't on the training table. That gets tiring. I wasn't able to skate the way I would like to. I started looking at different scenarios after this year and throughout the year just being on the training table every day was getting tiresome. It wasn't as much fun coming to the rink."
Combined with renewed religious beliefs and a strong desire to be with his wife and three kids more, the decision to retire became clear during the regular season. It felt the same after the playoffs ended with Detroit's loss in seven games to the San Jose Sharks
in the Western Conference Semifinals, so he decided to act on it -- despite leaving a lot of money on the table.
"What I'll be doing, first and foremost, will be serving my family and I'll definitely be looking to help others," Rafalski said. "I don't know what that will entail yet, but those will be my focuses. As far as the money goes, there are more important things now. That was very low on the list (of priorities)."
It was also no surprise to Zito, who watched Rafalski go from having nothing to having everything he could hope for over 15 years.
"For him, I don't think it was tough," Zito said walking away from $6 million. "He's fortunate that he's able to do that. I honestly believe that he's tickled pink to be a full-time dad and hang out with his boys. I'm really excited for him."