On Wednesday morning, Brian Rafalski announced that after 11 NHL seasons and three Stanley Cup championships he is walking away from the game, despite the one-year remaining on a five-year contract worth $30 million.
“The decision was made between my wife and myself, approximately two months ago,” said Rafalski, at a news conference at Joe Louis Arena. “At the end of the day it came down to priorities with the top three priorities being: serving God, serving my family, and serving others. With hockey not being at the top, it’s time to move on.”
Citing ongoing back and knee injuries that have plagued him over the last few seasons, Rafalski said the $6 million in salary, which he left in the table, couldn’t convince him to return for a 12th NHL season.
“The injuries have paid a toll, and there wasn’t a day this year where I wasn’t on the training table,” said Rafalski, who missed 36 games in four seasons with the Wings. “As far as the money goes, there are more important things now.”
Rafalski’s retirement makes it even more imperative that the Wings convince Lidstrom to return for another season. Without the veteran duo, the Wings are quite thin on the blueline.
The Wings had come to depend on Raflaski’s lightning-fast breakout passes and his Howitzer-like point blasts on the power-play. In a Wings’ uniform, he amassed 35 goals, 169 assists and plus-78 rating in 292 games.
|A Gallery of Brian Rafalski's time in Detroit. |
But his offensive production and ice-time significantly waned last season. Even though his points slightly increased, his plus/minus rating among league defensemen dropped from No. 6 to No. 39. And his ice-time also plummeted by nearly four-minutes.
“When you saw what he went through the last few years, it’s pretty hard to keep playing,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
Several of Wings teammates attended the announcement to show their support for Rafalski.
Wings center Kris Draper, who along with goalie Chris Osgood, are also eligible for free agency in July, said Rafalski’s message wasn’t lost on the Wings’ veterans in the audience.
“All the stuff that he was saying, you can appreciate where it’s coming from,” Draper said. “When Rafi is talking about why he walked away from the game, when you look at priorities it makes sense. And that’s the one thing when people do leave the game it has to make sense to them, and obviously, Rafi is right where he wants to be right now.”
His absence leaves a big hole in the Wings’ defensive unit as Jonathan Ericsson
and Ruslan Salei are eligible to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. That leaves the Wings with only three defensemen from last season’s roster – Niklas Kronwall
, Brad Stuart
and Jakub Kindl
– currently under contract for the 2011-12 campaign.
Rafalski had an outstanding pro and international career. The defenseman, who was born and raised in suburban Detroit and attended Southfield Christian High School, played at the University of Wisconsin and earned a degree in agricultural business management.
Though he wasn’t selected in the 1995 NHL amateur draft, Rafalski took off for Sweden, and later Finland, beginning a career overseas, which eventually brought him back to North America and his first NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils.
Following his final collegiate season with the Badgers, Rafalski signed with Brynas IF Gavle in Sweden’s Elitserien. After the 1995-96 season, he moved east, playing in Finland’s top league for three more seasons where he compiled 47 goals and 74 assists in 148 games.
He also represented the United States in three Olympic Games, winning a silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and the 2010 Vancouver Games. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t give a chance coming out of college.
Rafalski spent the first seven years of his NHL career with the Devils, before signing a lucrative five-year deal with the Wings, valued at $6 million per season, in the summer of 2007.
That summer, Rafalski was the top free agent available. And Wings were looking to upgrade with a quality experienced defenseman to replace the likes of Danny Markov and Mathieu Schneider, who missed the last seven games of the 2007 playoffs with a broken wrist.
Rafalski made an immediate impact with the Wings. Partnered with Lidstrom, the ageless tandem – along with the pairing of Kronwall and Stuart – helped solidify the defensive unit in 2007-08, which was something that was lagging the previous year.
When it came to the postseason, few defensemen can make claim to what Rafalski managed to achieve. In his 11 years, he never missed the Stanley Cup playoffs. And since the 2000 playoffs, Rafalski is the only player to finish among the top 10 scoring defensemen eight times.
Four times he finished among the top 10 defensemen in shots on goals in the playoffs. In 2008, he led all playoff defensemen with 58 shots in 22 games.
“For us, we lost one heck of a hockey player,” Draper said. “That’s the selfish part of us – is wanting to have Brian Rafalski back for another year – because he’s so good and such a big part of our success.”Follow Bill Roose on twitter | @RooseBill