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Teammates remember fallen friend

by Andrea Nelson / Detroit Red Wings
Organizers of the Red Wings development camp designated July 10 as Bryan Rufenach Day, to honor the former prospect, who tragically died in June. (Photo by Dave Reginek)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Forty-one players took to the ice. One was missing. But one glance at the No. 4 jersey hanging from the rafters let Bryan Rufenach’s teammates know he would always be watching.

The 23-year-old Rufenach suffered a recent tragic and untimely death while traveling through Europe this summer. But the Red Wings wanted to make sure he continued to be part of the 2012 development camp.

Bryan Rufenach Day was born.

“We gathered here today to pay tribute to one of our fallen prospects, Bryan Rufenach,” said Ann Reeves, the director of Red Wings events in Traverse City. “He was here last year for development camp, training camp and the prospects tournament. He was tragically killed about a month ago and the volunteers and I were compelled to do something.”

In conjunction with the Wings, Grand Rapids Griffins and Toledo Walleye, organizers of the 2012 summer camp designated July 10 as Bryan Rufenach Day. Friends, family, fans, coaches and players gathered at Centre I.C.E. Arena to pay tribute to Rufenach and his family.

“Rufio was such a good guy and such a good teammate to all of us,” former teammate and current Griffins forward Trevor Parkes said. “It’s definitely something you don’t want to be a part of because you never want something like that to happen, but it’s special to be there and know you’re here for him and his family.”

The debut of Rufenach’s memorial came on an 80-degree, sunny day that found attendants enjoying a number of activities. Food, live music and a dunk tank that sent prospect Mitchell Callahan falling into ice cold water entertained spectators young and old. A portion of all donations was given to the Bryan Rufenach Memorial Fund.

It was a celebration that drew fans from miles away.

Dennis Seymour and his three friends drove from Toledo, Ohio, to support one of their favorite players and his family.

“We’re all season ticket holders and fans of the Walleye,” Seymour explained. “Bryan was one of our most fond players that we loved to see so we came up to both support him and his family.”

Standing next to Seymour, Bryant Zdnuczyk wore Rufenach’s Toledo Walleye warm-up jersey. Nick Domschot wore the Rufenach jersey he purchased at the 2011 development camp. The four friends will always remember Rufenach for his spirit and were grateful for the opportunity to be part of the first Bryan Rufenach Day.

“It means a lot to me,” Zdnuczyk said. “I really wish he was still here, he was a great player.”

After the event held outside the Traverse City arena, the fans moved inside to watch the first scrimmage of the 2012 development camp. Before the puck dropped, a moment of silence fell over the arena as players, coaches, fans, friends and family remembered Rufenach. His Walleye jersey hung from the rafters at center ice. Despite the excitement of the first scrimmage, it was an emotional day for many players.

Bryan Rufenach's Griffins jersey hangs from the rafters at Center I.C.E. Arena in Traverse City. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

“I think it was very emotional for a lot of us that knew him,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “I was drafted the same year as him and I couldn’t believe it when I heard about it. That we could do this for the whole organization and some of his buddies here, that we can do this for him and his family is just awesome. It was a great game so it was pretty cool for his parents for him to see that.”

The game ended in a shootout, but the score was an afterthought compared to the reason everyone had gathered at the arena that day.

Rufenach had been the Wings’ seventh round selection in the 2007 NHL draft. The Lindsay, Ontario, native signed a contract last season with the Griffins and spent the majority of the 2011-12 season in Toledo. His teammates missed the bubbly Rufenach, on the ice and off.

Will Coetzee said he’ll miss Rufenach’s jokes in the locker room. Coetzee called Rufenach “Rufio” after the character in the movie “Hook.” Rufenach’s jokester personality reminded Coetzee of the character that helped Peter Pan fight Captain Hook, and the nickname stuck.

“I think it's just him being a jokester around the dressing room, having fun,” Coetzee said. “He's a pretty serious guy at the same time. I think he worked hard and it's just sad not to have him around the dressing room anymore.”

Rufenach’s jokes didn’t fill the air at development camp, but his memory did. And the organizers of the camp, Griffins, Walleye and Wings will make sure that is never forgotten.

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