Rafferty making a name for himself

Photo: Andy Nietupski

by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

“May the road rise to meet you” is an iconic Irish blessing that has passed through generations, shared to wish people good luck and good fortune on their journey through life. It’s inspired by the Gaelic phrase “go n-éirí an bóthar leat,” an invocation to encounter success and happiness in whatever one chooses.

Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Brogan Rafferty is almost 100 percent Irish, a fact underscored by his parents’ choice for his surname, Brogan – a moniker associated with reliability and strength, traits that would serve him well later.

Almost from the day he was born, Rafferty would be faced with overcoming the odds, making a name for himself in spite of every obstacle placed in his path. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Flash back to when Rafferty was about 11, playing a hockey tournament in the summer for fun.

“I went to go make a play and kind of put myself in an awkward position, and my back completely locked up and started spasming,” he said. “I went to the hospital and was in a wheelchair for a day or two while they examined me. They did the X-ray and everything, and they said, ‘You have a curved spine.’ It was acute scoliosis.

“The doctors said it was very unlikely that I would play competitive sports, especially contact competitive sports, as I got older. The message was either that I needed to stop playing or surround my spine with a lot of muscle. And so that’s what I did, just tried to strengthen and support my spine. Now, incredibly, it’s nothing serious – I don’t have any metal rods in my spine – but once or twice a year my back will flare up from increased activity and training, workload, and all that. But I found effective ways to deal with it. Looking back, at that age, I didn’t care. I felt like I was just going to keep doing what I love to do and try not to let it affect me.”

Rafferty played other sports growing up in the Chicago suburbs, but the activities were mostly of the backyard variety, whether it was baseball or basketball, an occasional game of golf, or a little swimming. He was ably coached by his father, Brian, an employee benefits specialist who had been a Division I wrestler at Northern Illinois University after having played goalie until the beginning of his teens.

“My dad was a very good athlete who played every sport – baseball, basketball, football, wrestling – but had to pick one for college, which was wrestling. For someone who had played goalie until he was 13, he really understood the sport of hockey. My dad was my coach until I was probably 14 years old, so he had a big impact on me.”

His influence, Rafferty suggests, extended beyond the rink.

“He wanted the team to win and guys to succeed, for sure, but the right way,” Rafferty said of his father, who now owns his own financial services business. “He didn’t really care about the goals you scored, the assists, or the play on the ice, as long as you gave 110 percent effort, you controlled your attitude and your emotions, and you were a good teammate.”

Rafferty also credits his father for convincing him to switch to defense, showing him a list of undrafted free agents who were in the NHL now because they were defensemen.

“I played center at the AA level in Illinois,” he said. “I kept getting cut from the AAA team every year, so I would just go and play AA with my buddies and have a great time. I would be one of the better players on the team every year, but I could never make the AAA team.

“At the time, I just laughed about it because the NHL wasn’t even close to being on the radar. It was just AAA – not even juniors, not even college and not pro. It was all about the next step. When he showed me the undrafted list, I was open to the idea because I was getting cut every year. So I tried it out.”

Rafferty finally had a path to making a name for himself. And then the weirdest thing happened.

News reports announced that a Brogan Rafferty was wanted by Akron, Ohio, police on multiple counts, including aggravated murder, robbery, and kidnapping, for the deaths of three men and the injury of a fourth, all of whom responded to a Craigslist help-wanted ad in 2011.

To make matters worse, Rafferty recalls, the television report showed his picture.

“My dad looked it up and saw the story on the internet,” Rafferty said, noting that the TV station later issued a public apology. “It was pretty crazy. I didn’t even know another Brogan and here was this 16-year-old kid – same name, same age as me.”

Rafferty’s dad and mom, Deirdre, were worried that the name association would forever haunt their son.

“I thought it was crazy, but to me, it wasn’t anything life-altering. I wasn’t completely naive to it, but I didn’t care because it wasn’t me. I’m just playing hockey.”

Rafferty would be much more consumed with learning to play the blue line.

“I went to a couple of summer showcases for lower-tier junior leagues and did well, got good feedback,” he recalled. “I ended up trying out for the AAA team that fall and making it because one of the coaches believed in me, and his vouching for me was the reason I made the team.”

After a season at the AAA level, Rafferty spent two seasons polishing his defensive skills in the North American Hockey League and another in the United States Hockey League.

“Those seasons were big because I was still learning how to play defense properly,” he said. “I moved only about four hours away, which helped because people would come and visit frequently. For me, it was the perfect distance, where you’re not going to never see your family, but they’re not going to be all over you at the same time. So that was nice.”

His progress in junior hockey was much like his earlier experience in youth hockey.

“I kept getting cut from the USHL until I finally made it my third year of junior hockey, which was my last year of eligibility. I felt like I really took a big step that year.”

It led him to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

“There was something about Quinnipiac that was just pulling at me – like, this is where I’m meant to be,” he said. “They were the number-one team in the nation at the time they were recruiting me, so it was very nice to have a team like that talk to me, let alone offer me.”

This time, Rafferty did not need to worry about being cut.

“One of the better things about college is once you’re in a program, you’re usually there, you’re locked in,” he said. “So finally committing to a Division I school was a big relief.”

Rafferty played three seasons at Quinnipiac, attending a couple of NHL development camps during that time. In 2019, he decided to forgo his senior season to sign with the Vancouver Canucks.

“I felt like I was ready to go, and I was also getting offers that backed that up,” Rafferty said. “I’m thinking, ‘I could be in an NHL uniform in three days, so I’m taking it. I’m ready to go.’”

He had already finished his schooling, so it took any classroom work out of the equation.

“I got my degree in finance in three years after my parents had instilled in me that I had to prioritize my education, so I had checked that box,” he said. “I felt good about where my game was at, so with the opportunity from Vancouver sitting there, I took it.”

Rafferty appeared in two NHL games during the final stages of the 2018-19 season, making his NHL debut in Nashville on April 4, 2019. He attended Vancouver’s training camp the following fall but spent the entire 2019-20 season with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. He was selected to the AHL All-Star Classic and was named to the AHL Second All-Star Team.

“All the stars aligned for me,” he said. “It was a comfortable environment, and the team, the coaches, and everything was great. I just truly enjoyed coming to the rink every day and playing with my friends and my teammates.

He spent the 2020 postseason with Vancouver and returned to the NHL for the pandemic-delayed 2020-21 season, spending the entire campaign on the Canucks’ taxi squad, but appeared in only one game.

“I felt like I had so much momentum coming off that Utica season, so it was tough,” he said. “When you’re not playing, it’s a whole different experience. Mentally, when you’re in that situation – you know you’re not getting in – it’s very hard.”

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

Rafferty signed with the Anaheim Ducks for the 2021-22 season, and spent the year with the San Diego Gulls. The weather was nice but the hockey was less so.

“It was a frustrating year on the ice in San Diego. The guys were great and we had a pretty tight-knit team, but we weren’t performing well and we had kind of a lackluster season. I never got a look in the NHL and that was frustrating.”

Last season, Rafferty joined the Seattle Kraken and their first-year affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

“We had a really good team in Coachella and I could see it from day one of training camp. This was a special team,” he said. “They did a great job bringing in really good players and assembling a team with the right coaching staff.”

The Firebirds went all the way to the seventh game of the Calder Cup Finals before losing to Hershey in overtime.

“We had all the right pieces,” he said. “We were just missing one piece: one goal at the end of the year.

“It was the craziest feeling. There’s so much emotion that goes into a playoff series, let alone a Game 7 overtime. Those are the moments you grow up dreaming about in your driveway, where you’re announcing your own name after scoring the goal. And then it’s over.

“Sitting there on the bench, when it ended, I was extremely devastated. I would never wish that feeling upon anybody.”

Even so, that single loss could not spoil a successful season.

“I still get emotional thinking about it because so much good came out of that year,” Rafferty said. “It was a really special year.”

After tallying a career-high 51 points with the Firebirds, Rafferty signed a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings last summer.

“I grew up a huge Red Wings fan, so they were always on my radar,” said Rafferty. “When they called my agent, I was pretty excited. Signing for two years was huge because now I have a family and some stability would be nice instead of moving around every nine months.”

His wife, Michelle, gave birth to their daughter, Maren, on Aug. 26, 2022. He can now attest to the fact that becoming a parent changes your life.

“It’s the best job ever, but it’s the hardest job ever,” he said. “It’s also the most rewarding. She’s about to start walking – she’s taking some steps here and there – so that’s a new milestone that we’re looking forward to. She has definitely changed our life.”

And Rafferty is happy to have found a home with the Griffins.

“I’m still hungry to play in the NHL, maybe hungrier than I have ever been, but right now, my feet are in Grand Rapids and I’m focusing 100 percent on doing whatever it takes to win here.

“I’m looking forward to being a good role model for some of the younger guys. As one of the older guys, I feel like I have a responsibility to teach the younger guys and show them how to be successful. That’s the kind of team success that I want.”

At 28, Rafferty hopes he still has a lot of years to keep playing. He chuckles that he may have more motivation than most.

“When I was in college, every time you looked up my name, you’d find the Craigslist killer. You wouldn’t find me until the second page of the search. I want to become the best player I can be so that when people Google my name, it’s all about hockey.”

And if leading Grand Rapids to a Calder Cup – or two – will help, Brogan Rafferty is all in. He is ready to put his name on the line.