The Importance of Brian Rafalski

In just about an hour, Brian Rafalski will walk up to a podium in the Olympia Club, sit down next to Ken Holland and cease to do the thing he has done since he was a young boy growing up in Dearborn, Michigan. Sure, he’ll probably strap on the skates again at some point, whether it’s teaching kids how to play or just goofing around with the guys, but for all intents and purposes Brian Rafalski will cease to be a hockey player today. Yes, his departure leaves a void on the blue line for a team that has an entire assortment of issues in the defensive department, but let’s be fair here for just a second. Rafalski is getting up there. His professional career spans 16 years in Europe and the NHL, and the man’s injuries read like a list of ailments you would expect to see from an 80 year-old construction worker at a retirement home. Back problems. Knee problems. ACL? Optional.

For a guy who probably hasn’t been 100% healthy since he first stepped into Joe Louis Arena, this move away from the game makes all the sense in the world. One more year would probably mean an entire offseason of rehab just to get up to speed for the regular season, followed by another 90+ game grind on a body that is giving way more rapidly every year. Personally, I don’t blame Rafalski for walking away. It had to be extra deflating for him to see a guy like Mike Modano work so hard to give it one more run, just to watch a freak accident effectively end a career. Combine that with the fact that Rafalski has probably felt for some time that his game wasn’t where he wanted it to be anymore, and his departure from the NHL is a slam dunk decision…on paper. It’s a testament to Rafalski’s gamesmanship and love of hockey that he went back and forth on this choice, but at the end of the day he really didn’t do much to hide the fact that this was it. His comments about Lidstrom pondering retirement and how he could understand if King Lidas walked away. His full cleanout of his locker. Rafalski’s known for quite some time, and that’s the way it should be in instances like this. Anyone who watched this Wings team from Game 1 through Game 93 saw the decline in Rafalski’s play. It was gradual, sure, but it was there. No matter how many great breakout passes he made, the turnovers were undeniable. Every time he went to the corner for a puck and somebody lined him up was a moment you wondered if hewould ever pick himself up off the ice. Most of the time, he did. That’s the mark of a warrior, and there’s no mistaking that Brian Rafalski was just that. But grit and determination only take you so far before the body says “no more.”

The marks that Brian Rafalski leaves on the game of hockey are undeniable. Four Stanley Cups, two Olympic silver medals and a likely spot in the American Hockey Hall of Fame (I doubt he’ll make it to Toronto.) Rafalski helped pave the way for small, undersized, puck moving defensemen in the NHL and his professionalism is bar none. I’m thankful that I got to witness him play hockey for his hometown team and I will most definitely miss watching him on the ice. So I say my thank yous alongside numerous other Red Wings fans and I wish Brian the best in all of his future endeavors. Your time here was appreciated and your contributions were top-notch. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of you at Joe Louis Arena, whether it be with the organization or with your crew as you take in a game.

Despite all of the successes and contributions that Rafalski has already made with the Red Wings, his greatest contribution may not yet be fully understood. In fact, it may not be understood for some time. But in ten years, when I’m sitting in a bar somewhere having one too many beers and that random guy brings up Brian Rafalski and everything he did for the Wings, I guarantee you I won’t falter when I offer up mine: “He was the first domino.”

For those of you who are stuck somewhere between “Huh?” and “This guy’s an idiot”, let me officially welcome you to the blog. The rest of you out there already know where I’m coming from because I’ve been an advocate for new blood for some time now. Ever since last year, I’ve had this nagging feeling that the chatter about the Wings being “too old” and “too slow” may have some small level of credibility. No, I don’t really think they are too old or slow to win a championship, but it always got me to thinking about the Wings organization as a whole and how those kids down in Grand Rapids ever expected to find their way to the show with 35 and up “cyborgs” staying in the league. Sure, we all know Nick Lidstrom will one day hang it up and we know that Homer can’t be Homer until he’s 60 years old, but it always seemed like the current Wings roster would just hold out until #5 decided that he was done with hockey and wanted to go be perfect at something else before they decided to hang it up. Follow the captain, no? Yes, I hear those of you who are saying “What about Kirk Maltby???” and yes, he technically did start the retirement parade this year, but his exit was more of a warning shot across the bow for those who felt this Wings team could keep hanging on to aging stars. Rafalski is a blast straight to the hull.

It’s inevitable that this thing will come to an end at some point. Within the next year it’s very likely that the Wings will lose Lidstrom, Draper, Osgood, Holmstrom and maybe even Todd Bertuzzi to retirement. Combine that with Rafalski’s departure and Modano’s cup-of-coffee stay with the team, and that’s a pretty big hole  in the ship. There will, of course, be money spent on a free agent or two, and that’s to be expected. But starting this summer, the real fun begins. Those kids in Grand Rapids who have been waiting their turn are now going to be putting in extra hours every single day because there’s a spot to be had in the lineup. If the Red Wings are Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory then Brian Rafalski is the Golden Ticket. And while the Wings already have one Charlie Bucket, you better believe that somebody else is going to dig deep to try and earn a spot on this club. Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are licking their chops and that’s exactly what this team needs right now. Too often we complain about the Wings just going through the motions and now that same group of guys will have to experience an offseason and training camp where there’s 5-10 kids bringing it every single shift because they want what this group already has. That’s what they call a breath of fresh air. That’s what they call a new perspective.

Will it work out in the end? Hopefully. Yes, there will be plenty of bumps in the road as veterans are replaced by kids, but that’s the circle of life, folks. The kids will make mistakes and we’ll curse them up and down, but let’s not forget that every single guy on this roster was once a kid who made mistakes. All they wanted was a chance, and when they got their chance, they made the most of it. That same player could be waiting in the wings at this very moment. I’m done with the complacency. I’m tired of the “too old” discussion. I want to see the young guys get their shot and I want to see it sooner than later. Does that mean that I want to see Nick hang ’em up? Hell no. He’s one of the guys who is so talented that his age doesn’t cost him that step that it does guys like Rafalski and his captaincy is needed now more than ever. Because the change is coming and it’s coming quickly. It’s felt stagnant for some time now, yet Brian Rafalski just threw open the windows and said “Let’s shake this shit up a bit” and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

So thank you Brian Rafalski. Thank you for your contributions to the Wings, to Detroit, to the USA and to hockey in general. But let me add an extra special thank you for rocking the boat and making waves. It’s about time.