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Rafalski goes from player to youth coach @NHLdotcom

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brian Rafalski grew up in Michigan and played for the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, but his post-playing days have led him to a new endeavor in hockey in a warmer locale.

Rafalski, who entered the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Thursday night, is coaching his son's hockey team, which is not atypical for former NHL players. But he is doing so in Florida and helping to grow the sport in a new way in the process.

"When I was a little kid I always wanted to live in Florida so when my wife suggested it, I was like, 'Yeah, I think we can try that down there,' " Rafalski said. "I've been blessed to have the help of other great coaches. There are a couple Canadian guys who played in the ECHL down there and now live down there permanently that I coach with. Their sons are great players. We have a nice group that we've been able to develop."

Rafalski co-coaches the Florida Alliance AAA U-10 Major Elite Squirt team, which includes his son Matthew. He also coaches the AA squirt team for the Junior Everblades Hockey Association, a team Matthew also plays on.

"Our AAA team is No. 1 in the country right now," Rafalski said. "We've got some great players down there. They understand the game. They are fun to work with. I love when they get new concepts. As soon as they finish one thing, we are adding another thing for them. It's good to develop and see the kids grow.

"I'm blessed to have a group of kids who really want to be good at hockey. They listen and they try. They give a lot of effort. The ones that listen and want to get better; you can see it in them. They keep improving and they learn. They are sponges at this age. We'll see when they become teenagers how much they can take, but we're trying to give them as much now as we can and let them grow from there."

Youth hockey has flourished in pockets of the country that didn't have ice rinks not that long ago. Players like Rafalski getting involved at the youth level have had a big impact. His teams have kids from all over Florida on them, but most are from the area south of Tampa on the state's West Coast.

There is a fair amount of travel, especially for the AAA team, and it is something Rafalski is working on lessening in the future.

"We do three tournaments. This year only two are out of state, in Detroit and Chicago, and then we're actually having a couple teams come down to Florida to play us," he said. "We're trying to get more teams. You think it would be an easy draw."

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