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Changing on the narrative on former Red Wing Brian Rafalski’s retirement and comeback

Rafalski

I liked the narrative of former Detroit Red Wing Brian Rafalski’s comeback story: Guy quits hockey with some power still in his batteries. Guy plays in alumni game. Guys realizes mistake. Guy attempts comeback while team still hasn’t found a suitable replacement three years later. If comeback doesn’t work, world learns lesson that the best time of your life might be the moment you’re living in, that you can’t just go back and replicate everything. If comeback does work, world learns lesson its never too late to make up for your mistakes.

There’s a problem with this, though. It’s all wrong. We learned that yesterday when Rafalski called off his comeback after just three games with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. Go back to Rafalski’s retirement ceremony.

It was the end of May. Two weeks earlier the Red Wings had lost Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks. The conference finals were nearing their end.

The story appeared without warning: Brian Rafalski was retiring. The 37-year-old guy who had played in 63 games last year, who averaged 20 minutes a game, who posted 48 points, who had a +11 plus-minus was finished. He was leaving $6 million on the table. He was done before Nick Lidstrom, the 41-year-old who had been playing nearly half of an entire game every night for the past 20 years.

“I blew it off,” Ken Holland said when talking about Rafalski’s retirement, “because it didn’t make any sense.”

Rafalski’s retirement speech convoluted the reasons. It lasted six minutes. He talked a little about hockey and lot about God.

“At the end of the day it came down to priorities, with the top three priorities being God, serving my family and serving others,” Rafalski said, before closing the speech with a bible verse. “With hockey not being at the top it’s time for me to move on.”

Articles from that day mention he had become more religious in the previous year, hinting that that had somehow drawn him away from hockey.

The narrative was set then: Rafalski was a guy who had fallen out of love with the game, the same one he stuck with despite going undrafted and spending four years in Europe for Brynas IF and Helsingin IF. Te guy who didn’t reach the NHL until he was 26 was giving up on the game before it gave up on him. A question lingered: Did he really understand what he was giving up?

The comeback implies the answer is no. Why go through all that at 40 years old if you fully realized what you were walking away from?

There were clues in that retirement ceremony that hinted at something else, though.

Rafalski was more than just a tired hockey soul. He was a beat up one. There were knee problems and back pain.

“There wasn’t a day this year that I wasn’t on the training table,” Rafalski told reporters after his speech. “I wasn’t able to skate the way I would have liked to.”

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock added: “I think you have momentary surprise (that Rafalski is retiring) and then, it makes sense, with his injuries.”

From that standpoint, the comeback wasn’t about not realizing what he had until it was gone or falling back in love with the game again. It was about feeling healthy. The sterile, no-checking, barely-any-defense Winter Classic alumni game didn’t put much strain on his back or knees. He felt good after that game. Good enough that he could play another one. When that happens you think it’s always going to happen. Until it doesn’t. Until you can’t touch your toes without your back flaring up. 

I don’t know what really motivated Rafalski to retire on that day in 2011. I’d guess it was a combination of not loving hockey and the injuries. I don’t know what prompted the comeback. I’d guess it was a combination of everything that makes the game great and waking up on Jan. 1 and feeling OK. I don’t know if he regrets that day in 2011 or this comeback in 2014.

But I know narratives and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right one now.

Brian Rafalski? He gave his body to the game.

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