Rafalski in Finland
The worker behind the counter in the Helsinki fast food restaurant looked at the native of Allen Park and said, "What?" in pretty good English.
"I looked at my buddy and said, 'Did I say that right?'" remembered Rafalski. "He said, 'I understood you.' I tried to learn the language, but it seemed like everyone in Helsinki spoke English anyways."
The language wasn't the easiest to learn.
Even a Finn like Valtteri Filppula admits that Finnish "sounds pretty foreign to most people" and is "difficult to learn."
But Rafalski hadn't traveled all the way to Finland to learn a new language. Undrafted by NHL teams after four successful seasons at the University of Wisconsin -- he was named the WCHA defenseman of the year in 1995 -- Rafalski began his professional career with one season in Sweden followed by three in Finland.
Rafalski had three standout seasons in Finland, tallying 36 points and 15 goals in 30 playoff games.
He went over to Europe to find a career in hockey. While there, the NHL found him. Rafalski was signed by the New Jersey Devils in 1999. Two Stanley Cups and seven full NHL seasons later, his professional path has come full circle back to Detroit.
"I was trying to make a living by playing in Europe," said Rafalski. "I was making decent money over there. It was something I'd be happy doing if I never made it to the NHL. I established myself pretty well over there. But when the NHL came calling, I decided to take a shot. It worked out pretty well."
While Rafalski was making a living in Finland, he was also getting a good preparation for life in the NHL.
Among his teammates in Helsinki in 1997-98 were future NHLers like Olli Jokinen, Kimmo Timonen, Jarkko Ruutu, Niklas Backtrom and Tim Thomas. That team that season had 17 players who would eventually play in the NHL, including Rafalski.
"We were really good," said Rafalski, who played close to 80 games that season, including regular season, playoffs and tournaments. "Our team was known for being physical. That was one of our traits. … The biggest thing was getting to play against good players, putting myself in a position where I was getting a lot of minutes, power play, penalty kill, everything."
There is a Brian Rafalski jersey in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, but it's not one with the New Jersey Devils' logo. Rafalski's Helsinki jersey is part of the hall's European game display.
Rafalski never did become as fluent in Finnish as he has in hockey.
Movies were in English with Finnish subtitles. So were many television shows. Hockey orders shouted by coaches became Rafalski's best-understood Finnish.
Now he's back in Detroit at age 34. Allen Park isn't far from Joe Louis Arena. Nor is Southfield Christian High School where he played soccer.
In a locker room full of Europeans, Rafalski is now the native, no longer the foreigner.
"You make yourself available to do whatever you can to help and the team has a great support structure," said Rafalski. "But you know what … most of these guys have been here longer than I have."