Back in 2002, I fell in love with the new team USA jerseys for the Olympics. I wanted to get one and put a Devil on the back. I chose Brian Rafalski. Even after he left for Detroit, I never regretted it. Brian Rafalski retired today, after a fantastic NHL career that didn’t even start until he was 26 years old. This is a tribute to one of my favorite Devils ever.
First, let me get a pet peeve out of the way. I hate, seriously, I hate fans who get jerseys of other countries. I root for the crest on the front, not the name on the back. This applied in 2002. Did I love Marty Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer? Sure, as Devils, I loved them. But in Salt Lake, they were the enemy. When Team USA played Canada for gold, I wanted Team USA to light Marty up. Part of it comes from my family having served this country. Part of it comes from seeing the way other countries cover their olympic teams. There’s a genuine rooting, even though it’s the “unbiased” media. In the USA, it’s almost as if we’re trying to cover Team USA equally to all other teams. This is ridiculous. Why American Devil fans think it’s ok to come into the Rock in a Team Canada jersey is beyond my comprehension. But jersey fouls and moronic decisions by fans are for another day. But I was nervous about getting Rafalski’s jersey because I wasn’t sure what number he’d wear. I knew Adam Deadmarsh would wear 28, so I wasn’t sure what Brian would be wearing. He wore 3 at Wisconsin and that was the logical choice. Just to be sure, I called a friend who worked for USA Hockey and he assured me Brian would be wearing number 3. I could’ve waited, but I wanted the jersey in time for the games. Lucky me, I had it, and I still treasure it. I wear that sweater every time Team USA takes the ice in any event and will continue to do so for a long time.
From the moment Brian Rafalski stepped onto the ice for the Devils he was a stud. I remember after he signed seeing an article naming him the best player not playing in the NHL. The Devils knew what they were getting. He was immediately paired with Scott Stevens, and the two spent every season together until Stevens retired. This can not be understated. The ability to split up Stevens and Niedermayer and have two all-world defenseman on two separate units was a huge advantage. It paid off to the tune of two Stanley Cups. Brian was also consistently one of the better plus/minus guys on the team. I remember that first season, the Devils won a Cup, and Brian was +21. I also remember them losing the next year with the best team the Devils have ever had. Brian had 18 points and was a Conn Smythe candidate.
Brian also falls into a unique category among Devil fans. He’s one of the few UFAs to leave, that hasn’t gotten booed viciously. I get it if a guy leaves for the Rangers of Flyers. It’s like Johnny Damon cutting his hair and signing with the Yankees. But Scott Niedermayer was treated extraordinarily unfairly by Devil fans at Scott Stevens’ jersey retirement night. He came on the jumbotron twice, and both times was booed. One of the top 5 players in team history, and he was destroyed by the fans. This opened up my eyes a lot about Devil fans, but again, that’s for another day. Brian has been treated with respect every time he’s taken the ice on the road against the Devils. Brian grew up in Dearborn and it made a lot of sense for him to sign with the team he rooted for as a kid, the Red Wings. Plus, I don’t think he was going to get the $6M per year that Detroit was offering from Lou. He got paired quite often with Nik Lidstrom, which says a lot about his ability. He went on to play in another final and win another Cup with Detroit. In 11 NHL seasons, he played in the Final five times. That’s an amazing feat. And he wasn’t just some role player, late season addition type guy on those teams. He was a top 5 guy. A rock on the blue line, and an elite puck mover.
On the comic relief side of things, Brian was also one of the worst quotes in NHL history. After winning a game 4 to tie a series 2-2, he’d say, “Well, we’ve won two games, they’ve won two games, it’s best of seven, whoever wins two more, wins the series.” Just a total captain obvious. Since the Hockey Hall of Fame is really a Hall of Very Good and not as tough to get into as the Football or Baseball Halls, I could see Brian getting in one day. This isn’t an insult to him, it’s just a fact. He didn’t play long enough of have the numbers, but in hockey, sometimes that’s ok. Heck, Cam Neely is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and his numbers, while not pedestrian, would never hold up in baseball. But I like it that way. I like that some of the best players who didn’t play as long for whatever reason, or guys who just had brief, but amazing accomplishments, get in. That being said, it would be a very satisfying moment, if one day, Brian Rafalski stepped to the podium in Toronto and said, “Well, I needed 75% of the 18 members to vote for me. That’s 14 votes. I must’ve got at least 14, so here I am, in the hall of fame. Thank you.”