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.