Brian Rafalski to attempt comeback
After serving for two years as team chaplain for the ECHL's Florida Everblades, veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski will attempt a comeback with the team beginning Friday night with an eye on a possible return to the NHL.
Rafalski, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and three-time U.S. Olympian, retired after the 2010-11 season with the Detroit Red Wings with one year left on a contract that paid him $6 million annually.
A father of three boys, Rafalski has been active in coaching youth hockey in the Sanibel Island area, not far from where the Everblades play. He approached the team about serving as chaplain when he and his family moved to Florida after his final NHL season.
For the past two years he has met with players on a weekly basis, often taking the group to lunch, a gesture that wasn't lost on young players not making a lot of money, coach Greg Poss told ESPN.com Friday.
Although the team asked on occasion if Rafalski would like to work out with the players, it wasn't until the lead-up to the alumni events surrounding the Winter Classic in Detroit a couple of weeks ago that Rafalski decided to return to the ice.
That led to Rafalski's decision to pursue a return to competitive hockey, and the 40-year-old signed an ECHL contract with the Everblades and was expected to make his debut Friday against South Carolina.
Poss said the Everblades received calls from a number of NHL teams once they announced that Rafalski was going to play.
Although Rafalski left the game with one year remaining on his contract, NHL officials told ESPN.com on Friday that he was removed from the Wings' voluntarily retired list, meaning Rafalski is a free agent.
Detroit general manager Ken Holland said in an email the team will monitor Rafalski's comeback efforts.
Still, any talk of a return to the NHL is beyond what Rafalski is imagining right now. "I'm not concerned about that," he said.
He's been on the ice with the team perhaps eight or nine times in total and said he feels like his legs are starting to come around.
"It's a big mountain to climb," he said.
The plan is for Rafalski to play in one of the team's two games this weekend and then practice next week in preparation for next weekend's games against Orlando.
The timing is good for the Everblades, who have had as many as a dozen players called up to the American Hockey League.
Rafalski isn't taking anyone's spot on the roster, Poss said.
"We actually need him to play," the coach said, adding he is expecting to make use of Rafalski, always a gifted puck-mover, on the team's power play.
As for Rafalski's conditioning, Poss said the veteran defender "has a ways to go," but given that he was always among the league's smartest players, Poss said Rafalski could again be a valuable commodity as an NHL defenseman.
Rafalski said he'll just take everything a day at a time.
"I went where God wanted me to be," he said. "He'll put you where you're supposed to be."