Former NHL veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski made his ECHL debut with the Florida Everblades two weeks ago against the South Carolina Stingrays.
Florida Everblades vs. South Carolina Stingrays
Friday, 7 p.m.
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
Rafalski, 40, who hadn't been on the ice in nearly three years since his retirement from the game, is hoping to work his way back into shape and maybe play for an NHL club this season.
But when the Everblades stepped onto the ice for Thursday morning's practice at the North Charleston Coliseum in preparation for this weekend's two-game series with the Stingrays, Rafalski was nowhere to be found.
According to an Everblades source, Rafalski didn't make the nine-hour bus trip to the Lowcountry and was back in Florida with a sore back. Rafalski is not expected to play Friday or Saturday against the Stingrays.
The Stingrays and Everblades will renew their longstanding rivalry Friday at 7 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum. South Carolina and the Everblades will meet again in the Stingrays' annual "Pack the House Night" at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Stingrays and coliseum officials have already issued a "parking alert" for Saturday night's game.
Rafalski played 11 seasons in the NHL, winning three Stanley Cup titles - two with New Jersey and one with Detroit - and was a member of the U.S. Olympic Hockey team three times in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Rafalski played in 833 NHL games and recorded 515 points (79 goals, 436 assists). He was considered one of the smartest defensemen in the league when he retired from the Red Wings with a year remaining on his contract that would have paid him $6 million.
After retiring from the NHL in 2011, Rafalski moved to Sanibel Island, Fla., about 25 miles northeast of the Everblades practice facility.
For the past two years, Rafalski had been the Everblades chaplain and meets with the team on a weekly basis. It wasn't until Rafalski was asked to be a part of the Winter Classic's alumni game with former players from Detroit and Toronto that he seriously considered a return to professional hockey.
Rafalski worked out with the Everblades about a dozen times before taking the ice against the Stingrays on Jan. 10. Rafalski played a regular shift against the Stingrays, which amounted to approximately 20 minutes of ice time.
After the Stingrays beat Florida, 2-1, the former Red Wings defenseman admitted there was plenty of rust in his game
"New stick, new gloves," Rafalski told the Fort Myers News-Press. "But the skates were a little dusty. Just like me."
Despite having been away from the game for nearly three years, Rafalski still showed flashes of what made him one of the top NHL defensemen.
"He was a dynamic player on their power play," said South Carolina Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. "He can still move the puck. He has such poise with the puck. That's not something you can teach, you either have it or you don't. He constantly has his head up when he's on the ice. You see him surveying the ice every time he has the puck. That's why he was a great puck-moving defenseman."
In all, Rafalski has played in three games with the Everblades recording one assist. Carbery, for one, wasn't the least bit upset that Rafalski won't be in an Everbaldes uniform this weekend against the Stingrays.
"I'm not disappointed one bit," Carbery said with chuckle. "I know some of our fans might not agree with me. I know the fans that watched him play in the NHL probably want to see Brian play in person, but I'm glad he's not here. He's a great player and at this level he's a difference maker."