Former University of Wisconsin men's hockey coach Jeff Sauer vividly recalls the day he reached out to New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello with a little insight on a player he felt destined to make it big.
That player was 5-foot-10 Brian Rafalski, who at the time was considered by scouts an undersized defenseman incapable of handling the rigors of an NHL season.
"Lou told me he was too small and wouldn't be able to stand the physical game," Sauer said. "But four years later he was playing in the NHL and playing for Lou."
Rafalski could skate with the best
Brian Rafalski's remarkable journey as an elite NHL defenseman came with a few perks.
He had the opportunity to skate with Scott Stevens for the majority of his seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils. He also had the luxury of skating with Nicklas Lidstrom as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
"Every player is different and everyone has different skill sets, but the one common denominator with Scotty and Nick was that they both had a presence on the ice," Rafalski said. "They were able to control the game just by being on the ice and I was very comfortable being the second guy to them."
Rafalski, who will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Dec. 4, proved to be a lot more than just a complementary player. He provided tremendous support and allowed both Stevens and Lidstrom to thrive in their roles on a regular basis.
"Brian was very intelligent and learned how to use his body at a time when the hockey being played in Finland resembled the systems in North America so he just grew," Devils general manager and 2012 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Lou Lamoriello said. "His offensive skills, instincts, hockey sense, and the way he handled himself made him a tremendous complement to Scott Stevens."
Rafalski considered himself a good complementary player to Stevens and Lidstrom.
"I really felt playing with Scott and Nick was a good role for me because I'd do whatever I needed to do to allow them to do what they do so well," Rafalski said. "Scotty was that hard-hitting defenseman, and guys like him are few and far between in today's game. Nick's vision on the ice and understanding of what is going on was second to none."
USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations Jim Johannson will always remember Rafalski as the player who would excel with any defensive partner.
"No matter who you paired Brian with, that would always be a good pairing," Johannson said. "I don't know if understated is the right word but he just went about his business and had himself prepared but you know his teammates realized how steady he was and you knew what to expect every night."
-- Mike G. Morreale
Lamoriello confirmed how Rafalski was back on his radar four years after Sauer's recommendation.
"We had a need for an offensive defenseman and we certainly didn't have somebody here in the minor leagues or someone we could sign so we spoke to our European scouts and asked them who was considered the best offensive defenseman in Europe," Lamoriello said. "The report came back Brian Rafalski (then 26 years old) so I approached his agent [Bill Zito], they accepted the contract and the history is what it is."
It turned out to be quite a career for the native of Dearborn, Mich. He'd win two Stanley Cup championships with the Devils and one more with the Detroit Red Wings in a period that spanned 11 seasons. He'd win a pair of silver medals while representing the United States at the Winter Olympics.
"Playing in Europe helped elevate my skill level," Rafalski said. "I thought I was a good passer but they stressed the individual play as far as being more active offensively. North America wasn't doing that as much so I improved that area while playing with a higher level of skill players. That benefitted me quite a bit."
Rafalski finished with 79 goals and 515 points in 833 career regular-season games and 29 goals and 100 points in 165 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On Dec. 4, he'll be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I've had so many influences and I just tried to absorb everything," Rafalski said. "It's hard to pinpoint one specific moment when I felt I could play in the NHL. I guess my first year in New Jersey during training camp and preseason, I felt very comfortable with how it was going and being able to play with Scott Stevens was pretty seamless. There were some good skilled guys around with [Patrik] Elias, [Petr] Sykora, [Jason] Arnott. I was a little older so I felt comfortable and didn't feel out of place."
And how was he able to absorb the punishment of a full NHL season?
"Learning how to take a hit was something I developed my whole career growing up a smaller defenseman; it was survival instinct," Rafalski said. "Being able to suck a guy in, I knew someone else would be open if I took the hit and then made a play."
Rafalski was honing his craft overseas in Sweden and Finland before joining the Devils as a free agent in 1999. In 1997-98, he skated for HIFK in Finland with Tim Thomas, Kimmo Timonen and Olli Jokinen. Before Europe, he spent four years at Wisconsin, earned All-WCHA Rookie Team honors in 1991-92, and All-WCHA First Team All-America and WCHA defenseman of the year honors in 1994-95 as a senior. He also met his wife Felicity in the second semester of his freshman year during a calculus class.
"She'll take all the credit for my 'C' in that class," Rafalski said.
In seven seasons with the Devils, Rafalski played in 541 regular-season games and scored 44 goals and 311 points to help New Jersey to the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003. He spent the majority of his career in the Garden State alongside Stevens.
"If you wanted to underestimate Brian Rafalski, do it at your own peril," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "He was on good teams and he made good teams better. The thing that was special about Brian was the fact you couldn't really push him into an area to negate him and take him out of the play."
Buffalo Sabres forward Brian Gionta was a teammate of Rafalski's for five seasons in New Jersey.
"For an undersized defenseman, it was amazing how well he could move the puck and operate, and this was before the rule changes when there was all the clutching and grabbing," Gionta said.
Devils center Travis Zajac was a rookie during Rafalski's final season with the team in 2006-07.
"I just knew every time he was on the ice he would get you the puck and put you in a good situation," Zajac said. "He was the guy that made players around him better; a smooth skater and vision that was off the charts. He was a quiet leader when I played, but also a player guys respected and looked up too."
U.S. HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
Vairo's innovations led to induction
By Mike Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
Lou Vairo introduced European concepts of training and playing hockey rarely seen in this country. He touched and influenced the lives of countless players and executives and will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 4. READ MORE ›
Rafalski joined the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent in 2007, was paired with Nicklas Lidstrom, and helped Detroit win the Cup in 2008 and reach the Final in 2009 before losing Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played 292 regular-season games in Detroit and had 35 goals and 204 points. He added 12 goals and 40 points in 63 playoff matches.
"He was an even better player when I got to watch him every day," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "I'm not sure we win the Stanley Cup without him; he meant that much to our team paired with Nick. His ability to spin, go back under pressure, get the puck and swing the net and make that first pass to transition the team from defense to offense meant we rarely spent a lot of time in our zone.
"I think he was a quiet player but respected by management, coaches and his teammates."
Kirk Maltby, a teammate of Rafalski's for four seasons with the Red Wings, will always remember how smart and skilled he was.
"You never really saw Brian get hit very hard because he always put himself in position where if he was going to get hit he was up against the boards, protecting himself," Maltby said. "The guy would bounce off of him, fall, and Brian would be the one skating up the ice."
Rafalski had one year remaining on a five-year contract with the Red Wings when he decided to retire in 2011 at the age of 37. Nagging knee and back injuries played a major part in the decision.
Rafalski's international contributions for the United States won't be forgotten. He was a mainstay in three Olympic tournaments, including the 2010 Vancouver Games when he had four goals and eight points on the way to earning best defenseman at the Olympics.
"It took Brian a long time to break through but I give credit to the people who really did get him going," USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations Jim Johannson said. "In the end the player always decides how far he will go and Brian decided the type of player he was going to become right away and prove anyone who doubted him, wrong."