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Rafalski headlines U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductees

by Mike G. Morreale

Four Olympic medalists, including two players and two coaches who played an integral role in establishing the sport of hockey in the United States on several fronts, will headline this year's inductees into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

The honorees, announced Wednesday by USA Hockey, include Brian Rafalski, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and three-time Stanley Cup champion. He is joined by Karyn Bye Dietz, who served as alternate captain for the gold medal-winning U.S. women's team at the 1998 Nagano Games; Jeff Sauer, college coaching legend and coach of the gold medal-winning 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team; and Lou Vairo, who was an assistant coach for the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

"The class of 2014 is an extraordinary collection of individuals that have had an immensely positive impact on hockey in our country," president of USA Hockey Ron DeGregorio said. "Cumulatively, they have been involved at every level of hockey and this group is a big reason why our sport has advanced to the point it has in the United States."

Brian Rafalski, who will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 4, won the Stanley Cup three times in his NHL career. (Photo: Getty Images)

The 42nd U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction dinner and ceremony will be held in Minnesota on Dec. 4 at a site to be announced.

The NHL's Lester Patrick Trophy, awarded annually for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, also will be presented during the induction ceremony.

Rafalski, who played for Sauer at the University of Wisconsin from 1991-95, was never drafted but proved himself in Europe for four seasons before being signed by the New Jersey Devils as a free agent in 1999. He played in New Jersey for the first seven seasons of an 11-year NHL career, beginning in 1999-2000. Rafalski played 541 regular-season games with the Devils and had 44 goals and 311 points, helping the Devils win the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003.

"Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to be coached by some of the best defensemen of all time, going back to Slava Fetisov, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer with the Devils," Rafalski said. "When I got to Detroit, guys like Mark Howe, Larry Murphy were there, and just to be in the same locker room with Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios was so special. I've had so many different influences and just tried to absorb it all."

Rafalski joined the Detroit Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent in 2007 and formed an immediate bond with Lidstrom, his defense partner. He helped Detroit win the Stanley Cup in 2008, scoring four goals and finishing with 14 points and a plus-6 rating in 22 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He played 292 regular-season games for the Red Wings and had 35 goals and 204 points, as well as 12 goals and 40 points in 63 playoff games.

Rafalski finished his NHL career with 79 goals and 515 points in 833 regular-season games. Knee and back injuries forced him into retirement after the 2010-11 season at the age of 37.

"He's a tremendous role model for smallish defensemen out there that aren't sure there's an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said in 2011. "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."

Rafalski represented the United States in three Olympic hockey tournaments (2002, 2006, 2010). The native of Dearborn, Mich., was a member of silver medal-winning teams in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. He finished third in scoring and first among defensemen at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with four goals and eight points en route to earning best defenseman of the tournament and being named to the Men's Olympic All-Star Team.

Dietz, who was selected to the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame Class of 2011, led the women's team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics with five goals in six games. She tied 2008 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Cammi Granato, Katie King and Gretchen Ulion for the scoring lead with eight points. The 1998 U.S. women's Olympic Team, which was inducted into the 2009 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, twice defeated Canada and won the first gold medal presented in women's ice hockey at the Winter Olympics.

"It's incredible how far women's hockey has come and I think the 1998 Olympics was the springboard for the growth," Dietz said. "I saw a dramatic increase in girls playing the sport after the '98 Games and it was fun to see. There's part of me that feels it's plateaued a little bit, but you still see a lot of incredible talent out there."

Dietz, who was featured on a Wheaties cereal box in 1998, was also a key member of the silver medal-winning U.S. women's Olympic Team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The River Falls, Wis., native was named USA Hockey's Women's Player of the Year in 1995 and 1998.

Sauer's 31-year NCAA Division I college coaching career featured 655 wins and national championships at the University of Wisconsin in 1983 and 1990. He led the Badgers to three NCAA Men's Frozen Four appearances, 12 NCAA tournament berths, six Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff titles and two WCHA regular-season crowns in 20 seasons (1982-2002). He also spent 11 years (1971-82) as coach at his alma mater, Colorado College, where he was named WCHA Coach of the Year in 1972 and 1975.

"When you look at a team picture, you can tell who the most important people are in the picture and if the coach is in the back row, you know the players are the guys that he respects the most," Sauer said.

One of Sauer's greatest achievements was realized in March when he led the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. He was named coach of the team on Feb. 14, 2013.

"The chemistry on that team I had this past year and winning the gold medal is probably the highlight of my career in relation to what I've been able to accomplish with different groups of players," Sauer said.

Vairo, who has served as director of special projects for USA Hockey since 1992, has directed national and professional teams in both the United States and Europe for parts of three decades. He was coach of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and an assistant coach for the silver medal-winning 2002 team.

"It was an honor to be involved in the Olympics in 2002; we had a Hall of Fame team," Vairo said. "I look back with admiration and salute the Canadian team that won gold that year; they were a little better than us that game. I feel lucky I have those memories to hold on to."

Vairo received the Lester Patrick Award in March 2000 and was twice honored in 1994 for his lifetime commitment to hockey, receiving both the John "Snooks" Kelley Founders Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association, and the Walter Yaciuk Award from USA Hockey's Coaching Education Program. He also studied under the late Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, and was an assistant coach under Doug Carpenter for two seasons with the Devils (1984-86).

"Tarasov told me that I should always remember that I am there to serve the players as a coach; the players are never there to serve me," Vairo said. "He had such a tremendous passion and commitment to his players and the game. He was more than a coach, he was a leader and entertainer; I thought he was a genius."


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