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Brian Rafalski’s former coach Jeff Sauer: “He was a player that always was involved in the play.”

DETROIT >> When former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski announced his retirement from professional hockey following the 2010-2011 season with one year and $6 million left on a contract, it came as quite a shock.

Conversely, the announcement made Wednesday was no surprise.

Rafalski was among four people elected to the class of 2014 of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.

“He was a player that always was involved in the play,” said his former coach at Wisconsin Jeff Sauer, who was also named as part of the class of 2014. “He was a guy that you could count on in all situations and circumstances along the way. He was the type of player that you looked down the bench and who’s the next guy that you need out there to kill a penalty or work the power play or be out there in a critical situation in a game? He certainly was the first guy you would pick.”

Rafalski ranks 10th all-time amongst American-born NHL defenseman with 515 points (79 goals, 436 assists) in 833 regular season games, while totaling 29 goals and 71 assists in 165 playoff games.

“I remember him telling us you come to college as a boy and you want to leave as a man,” Rafalski said of his former coach. “He gave you responsibility to grow up and learn what it took to be a professional athlete. You come to the rink every day, work the 3-4 hours and when you came out of there, you were ready to work hard and try to make a career out of hockey if you wanted to. It really allowed us to grow up and to go on to better things in our lives. It was something all the guys appreciated.”

Rafalski also finished in the top 10 in voting for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman, three times, twice with the Wings.

Rafalski, who reached the playoffs all 11 seasons of his career, played in three Olympic Games, winning silver medals in 2002 and 2010, where he was named the best defenseman at the Vancouver Games.

“For me it was just that I got the chance to play with a lot of guys I grew up watching,” Rafalski said of playing in the 2002 Games. “It was a very high-profile team, a lot of great players. It was a great opportunity for us to perform well on home soil. Getting the opportunity to play for Herb Brooks was a great honor, something that I’ll cherish and remember. It’s a fond memory for me.”

In 2007, Rafalski, a Dearborn native, signed a five-year, $30 million free-agent contract to come to Detroit as the Wings lost Mathieu Schneider after he signed with Anaheim.

“I remember growing up in the 80s when the Wings were in the Norris Division and they had no chance of winning,” said Rafalski, who also won a bronze medal at the 1992 world juniors. “You’d get into Joe Louis (Arena) no problem and sit wherever you wanted. They really changed through the late 1980s and 90s with Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom. They developed a great program there through great ownership with the Ilitches.

Rafalski won three Stanley Cups in his career, two with the New Jersey Devils and one in Detroit (2008).

“It was great to play in front of family and friends and have the opportunity to play with other great defensemen like Nick Lidstrom and Chris Chelios,” Rafalski said. “Throughout my whole career I had the opportunity to be coached and play with some of the best defensemen of all-time, going to back to Slava Fetisov, Larry Robinson, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko in New Jersey.

“Going to Detroit, there was Mark Howe and Larry Murphy,” Rafalski continued. “Just being around the locker room when those guys would come through and playing with Chelios and Lidstrom, I’ve had so many different influences and people to learn from. I just tried to absorb all that.”

Rafalski, who played four seasons in Europe after four years at Wisconsin, attempted a comeback last season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades which didn’t last long.

Also elected were Karen Bye Dietz and Lou Vairo. The induction ceremony will take place Dec. 4 at the U.S Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota.

Wings GM Ken Holland on Tomas Tatar: “His best years are still ahead of him.”

DETROIT >> Tomas Tatar became an every-dayer last season.

And on Monday the Detroit Red Wings forward got paid like one.

Tatar, who was a restricted free agent, signed a three-year deal with an annual salary-cap hit of $2.75 million.

In his first full season in the NHL, Tatar, 23, scored 19 goals, had 20 assists and was a plus-12 in 73 games.

“His best years are still ahead of him,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said during a phone interview. “He plays hard and goes to the hard areas. He’s a very important player on our team.”

Tatar, along with a number of other young forwards, was thrust into the spotlight last season due to the overabundance of injuries the Wings suffered.

“He’s probably one of our top line forwards,” Holland said. “We’d like to roll three lines out there that can score. That’s the way we’ve built our team for a lot of years.

“We need to continue to get offense from a lot of our kids with Tats being one of them,” Holland added.

Tatar, whose salary cap his was $630,000 last season, will still be a restricted free agent when the deal expires in 2017. Players don’t reach unrestricted free agency until the age of 27. Tatar will be 26.

When the season began, Tatar could not find his way into the lineup, playing in just one of the Wings’ first nine games of the season.

“I like him,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said at the time. “I think he’s a good player. He’s a very usable player, has a knack for the net. But early going in the season, tie goes to the veteran not to the kid. That’s just life. It’s amazing how that works. We’ll get it worked out.”

Tatar was coming off being named the American Hockey League MVP after leading the Grand Rapids Griffins to win the 2013 Calder Cup, scoring 16 goals to go with five assists in 24 games.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Babcock said when asked about how the youngsters helped the club qualify for the postseason for a 23rd consecutive season. “They came here and took jobs, they’re not going anywhere. They’re real good players that keep getting better and will be part of us for a long time.”

Tatar, who was the Wings’ 60th overall pick in the second round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, has played 100 games with Detroit, totaling 24 goals and 23 assists.

Defenseman Danny DeKeyser is the lone restricted free agent left to sign and Holland doesn’t see getting a deal done to be a problem prior to training camp.

The Wings now have 14 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies signed to one-way contracts, which brings their payroll close to $64 million, leaving them just over $5 million in cap space. This year’s salary cap is $69 million.

That money will be used to sign DeKeyser and possibly Daniel Alfredsson, who won’t know if he’s returning to the team until a couple weeks before training camp that begins Sept. 18 in Traverse City.

LC North alumni game will ‘lift up’ injured player’s spirits

When the ceremonial puck-drop starts the annual L’Anse Creuse North alumni hockey game Wednesday night, Joel Zito will be back in his element.

Zito will once again walk to center ice to drop the puck to begin a night that in the end will benefit him and his family in more than one way.

“If you’ll be at the game, you’ll see his spirits really lift up,” said Ken Zito, Joel’s dad. “He goofs around once he’s on that ice. We really don’t go much to hockey anymore so when he gets back out there it’s really fun to see.”

It’s the fifth year in a row the alumni game will double as a fundraiser to help defer expenses to help Joel recover after being severely injured in an accident in March 2010.

Joel, a 2008 LCN graduate, suffered a head injury that put him in a coma when he tried to move a soccer goal off of a field near L’Anse Creuse North Middle School so he and friends could play softball.

He also suffered a stroke at the same time.

He was in a coma for roughly six months.

“Each year he’s doing a lot better,” Ken said. “He’s more focused with his mind and physical abilities. He gets stronger every year, but it’s just a long, long, long process, but he’s doing well.”

Ken added that Joel has been getting up and walking on his own quite a bit as well.

“He’s really been pushing forward with that for the last two months,” Ken said. “He walks with a walker mostly, a push one with wheels, but he can walk on his own if someone is kind of spotting him.

“He pushes himself at the gym and all his therapies – speech, physical and occupational,” Ken continued. “When we brought him home he was bed ridden and had feeding tubes. Now he’s eating on his own. He’s come a long way.”

Joel played four years of varsity hockey at LCN.

“Not only was Joel a great hockey player, but the Zito family is a great LCN family,” said Crusaders coach Jon Nader, who started the fundraiser soon after Joel suffered his injuries. “They’ve always been great. We thought this would just be a great thing to help support him and his family.

“And the kids love coming back and taking part in it,” Nader added. “He’s still a very positive kid. He remembers a lot of faces. I think a lot of that has to do with his family. They’re very tight knit.”

Nader isn’t a bit surprised the progress Joel has made in his recovery.

“He’s just a go-getter, always has been,” said Nader, who added that LCN booster club president Steve Kostenko plays a big part in getting this event together that’s raised close to $7,500 over four years. “He’s a workaholic, a talented young athlete. Everything he got into he was good at. He was a leader and a role model. He was just a great kid. And his parents were there every step of the way to help out with anything you asked.”

Also in attendance at the game Wednesday will be Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy.

“He’s always been there to support Joel,” Ken said. “That means a lot to Joel. Joel knew him personally. Having the alumni game there and seeing some of the guys Joel played hockey with, it kind of gets to be a tear jerker.”

The game will take place at Mount Clemens Ice Arena, which donates the ice for the event, at 7 p.m. A $5 donation is asked to get in and watch the game.

If you’d like more information on how to support the Zito family, go to the Team Zito Facebook page, which has more than 1,300 members, and reads, “This is a prayer group, a sending good vibes and thoughts group, a group of whatever you do to send prayers and wishes to another.”

Referees who officiate the game out of the Northeast Referee Association also donate their time, and Dooleys provides post-game pizza for the players.

Ferraro knows he’ll have to excel on the PK if he has any chance to make Wings

DETROIT >> Landon Ferraro got an opportunity last season with the Detroit Red Wings.

The young center will get another opportunity to stick in the NHL this year, signing a one-year contract on Friday.

It’s a two-way contract. He’ll make $550,000 if he plays in the NHL and $85,000 if he’s assigned to the American Hockey League.

Since he’s out of minor league options, Ferraro will have to make the club out of camp or he’ll have to clear waivers in order to be assigned to Grand Rapids.

Due to an abundance of injuries Ferraro, 22, was just one of a number of forwards that made their NHL debuts last season with Detroit.

He had no points in four games. He had two shots on goal and two penalty minutes.

Once restricted free agent Tomas Tatar is signed the Wings will have 14 forwards, the number they want to carry into the season, on one-way deals.

They could also add Daniel Alfredsson prior to training camp.

Ferraro, who was taken in the second round (32nd overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, knows his only chance of making the team will how well he can kill penalties.

“(Penalty kill is) where I’m going to have to try and make this team,” Ferraro said after a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. “And be solid five-on-five and then being really good on the PK. That’s where I’m going to have to try and earn my ice time and earn a spot.”

Wings coach Mike Babcock liked what he saw in his brief audition.

“He did a real good job (on the penalty kill),” Babcock said. “I like his speed. He’s got to get stronger, but he’s quick.”

In three seasons with the Griffins, Ferraro, who’s the son of long-time NHLer Ray, has 38 goals and 60 assists.

He scored a career-high 24 goals two years ago.

The Wings still have restricted free agent Danny DeKeyser to get a deal down with prior to training camp.

Callahan, Nestrasil each get one-year, two-way deals to return to Wings’ organization

DETROIT >> Mitch Callahan and Andrej Nestrasil are coming off their best seasons as pros.

On Thursday, the two forwards got rewarded with one-year, two-way contracts to remain in the Detroit Red Wings system.

Callahan, 22, totaled 26 goals and 18 assists in 70 games with Grand Rapids last season. He was also a plus-23.

In 70 games, Nestrasil had 16 goals and 20 assists with the Griffins last season.

Callahan, who was fourth on the team in scoring, will earn $555,000 if he’s with the Wings and $90,000 in the AHL.

Nestrasil, 23, will earn slightly less – $550,000 in the NHL and $82,500. He was fifth on the Griffins in scoring.

Both players are heading into their fourth year in the organization and will be restricted free agents after their deals expire.

If they don’t make the Wings out of training camp they’ll have to clear waivers to be assigned to Grand Rapids.

Callahan made his NHL debut last season, playing one game and not registering a point in just over nine minutes of ice time.

“He creates havoc around the other team’s goalie,” Riley Sheahan said last season of Callahan. “Other teams don’t like playing against him. He’s a great guy to have on the team and he brings a lot of character and I think he’s going to be good for us.”

Callahan has 247 penalty minutes in 189 career games with the Griffins.

His 26 goals last season were a career high. His previous high was 11 in 71 games.

“It’s kind of funny because you look at all the goals, none of them are real pretty,” Callahan said when he was called up. “(I’m) just screening in front of the net, working hard in front of the net. I think I got four or five where the D shot it and it hit me. Just from working hard in front of the net and stirring it up and working hard.”

The Wings still have restricted free agents Danny DeKeyser and Tomas Tatar to get deals down with prior to training camp.

A healthy Dan Cleary ready for a chance to redeem himself

DETROIT >> Dan Cleary is looking at his 10th season with the Detroit Red Wings as a chance to do one thing … redeem himself.

Because the 2013-14 season was one that Cleary would soon like to forget, totaling just four goals and four assists. He also finished with a career-worse minus-11 rating in 52 games.

“I’m training hard, working hard to have a bounce back season,” said Cleary, who’ll get $1.5 million in base salary next season and could earn an extra $1 million in bonuses. “I’m very happy to be back.”

Clear will be one of 14 forwards the Wings will carry heading into the season, but he’ll have to beat out the youngsters to earn his playing time.

“Every camp is a competition, except for a few spots that are spoken for,” Cleary said. “I’m going to go in with an open mind. I’ll work hard on and off the ice and see where the chips fall. If I go in strong and healthy, things will work out.”

Cleary caused quite a stir last year as he tried to decide on his future.

He spurned a professional tryout from the Philadelphia Flyers and wound up signing a one-year deal to return to the Wings for $1.75 million on the eve of training camp.

In the process, Cleary shot down a report that he was offered a three-year deal worth $2.75 million a season to join the Flyers.

“Dan Cleary is a leader,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “We’re hoping he can bounce back. He’ll be good insurance, but he’ll have to beat people out to be in the lineup.”

Cleary had rejected the Wings’ two- and three-year offers prior to the opening of free agency last year and they moved on and signed Daniel Alfredsson (one year, $5.5 million) and Stephen Weiss (five years, $24.5 million).

“He’s a guy the coaching staff likes and so do his teammates,” Holland said. “He’s a leader in the room, who can play left or right wing and can go on the power play.”

Signing Cleary last season put the Wings three players over the roster limit and just over $2 million over the salary cap which meant Gustav Nyquist began the season in Grand Rapids, which didn’t sit well with Wings fans.

Nyquist was the only forward that, at the time, didn’t have to clear waivers and be exposed for other teams to scoop up before being sent down to the minors.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and you try not to let any of the negativity or positive comments affect you,” Cleary said. “We live in the day of social media, anyone can say anything. You can’t worry about what people think. You’ve just got to go out and do what you do.”

Nyquist wound up with 48 points (28 goals, 20 assists) in just 57 games.

Cleary’s season was cut short due to a knee injury he suffered before the Olympic break after suffering a bad reaction to an injection that caused inflammation.

It’s the same knee that’s been bothering him the last three years.

“It’s just been a lot of wear and tear,” Cleary said. “It was a rough start to last season. Then I had a reaction to the (lubricant) Synvisc, my knee blew up and got swollen and then my season was over.”

Cleary, 35, began training a week after the season and just resumed skating this week, which is four weeks earlier than normal.

“It feels good,” Cleary said. “It’s very promising. My knee’s a lot stronger and feels a lot better. I knew I needed to get my entire leg stronger to support my knee.”

Cleary’s numbers have dropped off each season since he scored a career-high 26 goals and totaled a career-high 46 points during the 2010-11 season.

However, he was the Wings’ second leading scorer (four goals and six assists in 14 games) in the playoffs two seasons ago when they lost in Game 7 in a Western Conference second round meeting with the eventual Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks.

Cleary feels he can get back to that level.

“It’s going to take hard work and dedication, but that’s my goal,” Cleary said. “I’m confident I can.”

The Wings still have about $8 million under the $69 million salary cap for the upcoming season. They still need to sign restricted free agents Tomas Tatar and Danny DeKeyser. Another chunk of it could be set aside for Alfredsson to return.

Renney could be leaving Wings for position with Hockey Canada

DETROIT >> The Detroit Red Wings search for an assistant coach may soon be doubling.

According to Wings general manager Ken Holland, Tom Renney is in the final stages of landing a position with Hockey Canada.

Renney spent two years as a coach with Hockey Canada, serving as the head coach of the Canadian National Team that went on to capture a silver medal at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

“Mike (Babcock) has been talking to a number of people,” Holland said during a phone interview.

Renney is up for the vacant position as president and chief executive officer, which was formerly held by Bob Nicholson.

One of the candidates the Wings have interest in is also interviewing with a few others teams before making his decision.

According to a source, one person Detroit has interviewed is Tony Granato.

Granato, who played 13 seasons in the NHL, spent the last five seasons as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins under head coach Dan Bylsma, who was fired after last season.

Granato, who’ll turn 50 at the end of this month, also has head coaching experience, serving two stints behind the bench with Colorado (2002-04 and 2008-09) compiling a 104-78-17-16 record.

“Mike has done a fantastic job finding assistants,” Holland said. “I’ll sign off on his decision. A number of his assistants have turned out to be NHL coaches.”

The latest assistant coach to land a head coaching job in the NHL is Bill Peters, who took over in Carolina.

Todd McLellan was the first to leave, taking over in San Jose in 2008. He was followed by Paul MacLean, who was named the head man in Ottawa in 2011.

Brad McCrimmon also left the same season MacLean departed to coach in the KHL, but tragically lost his life in a plane crash prior to his first game of the season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

The Wings stopped another coach from perhaps leaving for a head coaching job in NHL when they gave Jeff Blashill a “significant” salary increase to stay in the organization for three more seasons.

Blashill spent one season in Detroit, where he was in charge of the power play, after leaving Western Michigan University.

Renney was brought in to help fix the team’s woes on the power play, which ranked 22nd prior to him being hired.

Renney’s Edmonton Oilers had the third-best power play after the 2011-12 season.

In his two seasons in Detroit the power play ranked 15th and 18th respectively.

“The expectations are probably the biggest difference right now,” Renney after he signed a three-year deal to become Babcock’s assistant coach. “Coaching in Edmonton you go in with the expectations of winning, but also with the realization of sometimes you’re just not going to. It was a rebuild, trying to redefine a team and playing with a younger lineup. Never was the work habit lost. There is a great group of people there.

“Detroit is the standard bearer in terms of how the game gets played at the highest level, how it gets coached and how it gets managed,” Renney added. “Expectations are high in Detroit as they should be and I know as an organization certainly they don’t want it to be the other way. That sets you up for failure for sure, but what impresses me most about the Detroit Red Wings is seldom do they. If they have a tough season, tough stretch, there are usually extenuating circumstances for that.”

Renney had three consecutive 40 win seasons while the head coach of the New York Rangers.

He knew Babcock through Hockey Canada and coaching with him at the World Championships in 2004.