Mike Babcock understands how lucky the Detroit Red Wings
were in the summer of 2007.
They didn't pursue Brian Rafalski
, a two-time All-Star and two-time Stanley Cup winner in New Jersey. Instead, the underrated defenseman sought out his family roots and the Red Wings just happened to be the beneficiary.
"For us it was a home run that 'Raffy' wanted to come home and play for us," Babcock told NHL.com. "It has been nothing but positive since that time."
How could it be anything but positive? The Red Wings are built on a foundation of teamwork. Few players understand that concept better than Rafalski. He learned it playing Triple-A hockey in Michigan when he had the same teammates for four straight years, then honed it playing seven years under Lou Lamoriello's watch in New Jersey.
So, it's no wonder why Rafalski, when asked to pick the Army Value that summarizes him best, chose Selfless Service, which the U.S. Army defines as putting the welfare of the nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own.
To Rafalski, Selfless Service is defined as putting the welfare of the NHL, the Red Wings and his teammates before his own. He's keenly aware that the importance of pro hockey players who defend the goal does not compare to the importance of soldiers who defend the country. Yet the correlation with teamwork is undeniable.
"You have to count on each other. You have to rely on each other," Rafalski said to NHL.com. "No one person can do it all on a team sport. So, obviously that's the strong correlation. I think that's why a lot of military guys like to watch team sports. They can relate to it."
Outside of his obvious skill, Babcock said Rafalski's best attributes all have to do with his ability to mesh within the team concept. That has a lot to do with his integrity and loyalty, which are also among the Seven Core Army Values along with Duty, Respect, Honor and Personal Courage.
"He came from a real good family foundation, but he played in Jersey and it was all about the team,” said Babcock. "Lou keeps good people around and Raffy is one of those. He's about the team. He's zero maintenance. He's a family man and he has nothing but integrity. He comes with energy and leads in his own way. He is prepared to commit.
"When you look at our best players, that is all what they are about," the Detroit coach continued. "They are quality, quality, quality people and that is why they have been so good for so long. They take responsibility seriously."
Such as the responsibility that comes with winning the Stanley Cup. Rafalski, who has won it three times, knows a palpable weight beyond carrying the 35-pound trophy. You win it not only for yourself, but for people around you.
That's why when the idea to bring the Cup to the Army's veterans hospital in Washington, D.C., was brought up, Rafalski raised his hand. He jumped at the opportunity to unite the wounded soldiers around the greatest trophy in all of sports.
With the Stanley Cup in his arms, he walked into the Army medical center in December and felt a sense of pride wash over him. Never once did Rafalski think to himself how lucky he is to be doing what he's doing. Instead, he thought of the wounded soldiers he was encountering and how lucky he is that they do what they do.
"It's about what they have done and what they have sacrificed," Rafalski said. "It's about what they want to do with their lives and dedicate that to America. You see these guys and they are there because something happened to them, but they are there because of their ability to battle through obstacles."
"He's about the team. He's zero maintenance. He's a family man and he has nothing but integrity. He comes with energy and leads in his own way. He is prepared to commit. When you look at our best players, that is all what they are about. They are quality, quality, quality people and that is why they have been so good for so long. They take responsibility seriously."
-- Mike Babcock
Rafalski has become a champion in the NHL because of his ability to help his team do the same.
For instance, last season may have looked like a breeze for the Red Wings, who were in first place all the way through. But they battled adversity in February and early March during a 1-8-2 stretch when core players such as Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom
and Niklas Kronwall
were on the shelf.
Kronwall missed 13 games. Rafalski missed eight games. Lidstrom missed six. But they were all back by March and the Wings went on a 12-3-1 tear to close the regular season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup, but that wasn't as easy as it looked either.
They took a 2-0 lead on Nashville in the opening round, but the Predators won Games 3 and 4. The Wings needed overtime to win Game 5 before closing out the series in Game 6. In the Western Conference Final, a 3-0 series lead didn't deter the Dallas Stars
, who won Game 4 and 5. The Wings managed to close the series out in six.
And, finally, after winning three of the first four games in the Stanley Cup Final, the trophy was in reach. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins
won Game 5 in triple-overtime with a miraculous goal scored by the most unlikely source, checking line center Max Talbot.
Instead of celebrating on home ice, the Wings had to go to Pittsburgh. They would not be denied. Neither would Rafalski.
He scored the game's first goal and played close to 26 minutes as the Red Wings captured the Cup with a 3-2 victory, withstanding the Penguins' late power-play goal and their last-gasp, wild battle for the equalizer as time expired.
"So much about how good these guys are on the rink comes down to who they are as people," Babcock said. "Integrity leads to trust and trust leads to speed. When you trust your partner and teammate, you are not looking your over your shoulder and you work harmoniously together to get the job done."
Rafalski has carved a championship career out of doing just that.
"Teamwork is fitting into a role as best you can and performing as best you can in that role," Rafalski said. "That's the definition of being successful."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org