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Playoffs are Rafalski's time of year

by Larry Wigge /

The Detroit Red Wings are thrilled to have a seasoned postseason veteran defenseman like Brian Rafalski in their lineup as they continue their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Brian Rafalski walked through the corridor outside the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room inside the Sommet Center in Nashville calm and easy, like he just rolled out of bed. But his eyes were alert and ready for the kind of battles hockey is known for at this time of the year. No one has to tell Rafalski about the extra passion and emotion on the ice in April, May or June.

"It's the playoffs," he said with a huge grin. "It doesn't matter if you're playing shinny for bragging rights with a few neighbors as a kid, in high school, college, in Europe or the NHL, it's the time when championships are won.

"It's all about being motivated to win and not wanting to settle for anything but the Stanley Cup. That was our mentality in New Jersey and it's the same in Detroit."

At this point, the 5-foot-10, 191-pound defenseman laughed. He said he was remembering his first competitive playoff series as a kid.

"A lot of people look at me and don't consider me fiery or a fighter," he said. "But I was remembering 1991, I was playing in a game in St. Paul and some guy on the other team kept bumping into our goalie.

"I went after the guy. I'll never forget it, because I was thrown out of the game and spent the last two periods watching in the stands with my dad."

He's still fiery, but a lot smarter. Plus, more skilled and creative.

Rafalski set a career-high with 13 goals and tied his career-high of 55 points this season, and was tied for third among NHL defensemen with a plus-27.

In the first round of the playoffs, his two assists helped the Red Wings rally for a 4-2 victory in Game 2 over Nashville, and he played 25:21 and added an empty-net goal in Detroit's 3-0  series-clinching victory in Game 6.

"With him being a right-handed shot, it's easier to go D-to-D,” said Nicklas Lidstrom. “It reminds me of when I played alongside Larry Murphy on those two Cup teams in 1997 and '98. I've had some good partners when you think about Larry and Paul Coffey, but what's so good with Raffi is that we can go to our off-sides and take one-timers. It's amazing how we just read off each other so well. He's been a great addition."

"You don't just find defensemen with his skills on trees," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's like turning on the ignition of a powerful car the way Raffi and Nick work the transition game and spark our power play from the point."

Even if he has been considered too short by NHL standards, Rafalski always has had quick feet, great speed, the hands of a surgeon and the creative mind it takes to be a winner. Now mix in the heart, soul and intellect – he graduated from high school at Madison (Wisc.) East at 17, earned his degree in agriculture and economics at the University of Wisconsin and earned a merchandising job with Philip Morris long before he began his professional hockey career.

Now he's in his first season with the Red Wings after winning two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils (in 2000 and 2003) in seven seasons on the East Coast. The irony here is that the diminutive Dearborn, Mich., native was tailor-made to be a Red Wing, not because he grew up rooting for the Wings, but rather because he's an elite skater with great vision and puck skills in a system that thrives in a puck-possession world.

"It was a difficult decision leaving New Jersey, the only team I've known, but I'm coming home to play for the team I grew up watching," Rafalski said. "To have this opportunity is a dream.

"We don't have the luxury of picking our destiny ... of what might have been years ago if the Red Wings had come calling. The fact of the matter is the Devils gave me a chance to play in the NHL and they gave me an opportunity to learn on the fast track in New Jersey in a locker room with guys with tons of experience, like Scott Stevens, Marty Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko and playing for a coach like Larry Robinson."

Unlike most of those self-motivated stars, Rafalski went undrafted, unwanted by NHL teams after his four years at Wisconsin. He ended up playing one season in Sweden and three in Finland. There, he enhanced his shooting, skating and puckhandling skills on the wider ice surfaces – and gained more confidence in parts of his game.

It was while he was playing in Helsinki that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello asked Danny Labraaten, the team's chief European scout (ironically a former Red Wings forward) who the best player in Europe was. To Lamoriello's surprise, Labraaten didn't mention a native European. Instead, he mentioned an undersized American-born defenseman. Truth is, it's been rumored that the first time Labraaten saw Rafalski, he had gone to the game to scout a goalie on Rafalski's team.

His unconventional route to the NHL is what makes this story so good. And now going back home is like icing on the cake – even if Rafalski wasn't exactly sure what he was getting himself into after playing for so long in the Eastern Conference, where he rarely saw the Wings face to face.

"I've seen a lot of Detroit over the years on TV and you get a pretty good idea of what kind of team they are," Rafalski said when talking about his decision last summer to sign with the Red Wings. "When I watched them as a kid, they weren't going through a good stretch. I remember that Mike O'Connell was the player I watched the most. Not because he was my favorite, but because he was a small defenseman like me and he inspired me because he made it to the NHL. Later I found myself watching more and more of Paul Coffey with his speed and skills."

Rafalski said once he learned the Red Wings were interested, contract talks went fast.

"It only took a couple of hours to get a deal done after we touched bases with the Wings," Rafalski said. "Then there was one call I had to make, to tell my dad I had just signed with the Wings. I'll never forget hearing my stepmother screaming excitedly in the background when I called. But the best part of that call was hearing my dad's voice and how thrilled he was to hear that I was coming home to play for the team we watched together when I was just a boy."

Rafalski said the whole day was one to remember, because earlier, he nearly made a hole in one on a 200-plus-yard par-3 while vacationing in Wisconsin with his wife, Felicity, and their sons Danny and Evan.

"I guess you could say it was an omen that something really good was going to happen," he laughed.

Omen? You bet. Perfect fit? What's not to like about going to a puck-possession game in Detroit from the sometimes-stifling defense-first system in New Jersey?

"A lot of flow, a lot of forwards flying, looking for passes, breaking through gaps, hitting holes and passing the puck to them at the right time," said Rafalski, sounding more and more excited just talking about an offense made for a skilled player like himself.

"For us, it was a win-win situation," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said of signing Rafalski to replace offensive-defenseman Mathieu Schneider as a free agent to the Anaheim Ducks. "He's been a premier defenseman in the League for a number of years. He can play in every situation – power play, penalty kill, against the other teams' best players. Most important, with his mobility and puckhandling skills and the compete level he has brought to Detroit, he is a perfect fit for our style of play. We wanted three puck-moving defensemen, and now with Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian and Niklas Kronwall we have that.

"You could say that he has helped us established the defensive mindset that has made this team what it has been this season. We finished No. 1 overall in goals-allowed and in fewest shots allowed and we were in the top-five in power play and in penalty killing – and Brian and Nick play in all of those situations."

Giving Rafalski a five-year, $30 million contract has been like winning the lottery for Holland and the Wings.

When you watch Rafalski on the ice at this time of the year and you listen to him come up with that juicy little morsel about self-motivation and standing side-by-side with and for a teammate like he did in that St. Paul rink in 1991, well, you can't help but get excited about what's ahead for the Red Wings.

After all, it's the playoffs. It's a time for championships to be won and Brian Rafalski knows how to do that.

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