Making a Name for Himself
Griffins alternate captain Brogan Rafferty has overcome obstacles to establish himself as a dependable defenseman at the pro level.
Photo by Mark Newman
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.
Brogan Rafferty is almost 100 percent Irish, a fact underscored by his parents' choice for his surname, Brogan, the moniker being associated with reliability and strength, traits that would serve him well later.
Almost from the day he was born, he 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.
Flashback 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. I forget what the angle is, but 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 it still affects me a little bit to this day.
"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. "In terms of organized sports, it was hockey – roller hockey and ice hockey," he said.
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, Rafferty & Associates. "He didn't really care about the goals you scored, the assists, or the play on the ice, as long as you gave 110% effort, you controlled your attitude and your emotions, and you were a good teammate."
"My dad's a very old-school kind of guy, very hardworking – that's how you get to where you want to be, and there's no other way to do it. He taught a lot of subtle life lessons to us when we were kids that we probably didn't even understand at the time.
"I attribute a lot of my success in my career to my dad. He was a great coach."
Rafferty credits his father for helping him keep his emotions in check.
"I had a really bad temper growing up," he said. "He helped me with channeling my emotions and managing my anger and doing good on the ice instead of making myself look bad wearing the Rafferty name on my jersey."
It was also his father who convinced 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, which is a step below AAA," 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."
When it came to playing hockey at a higher level, his name might as well have been mud.
"At the time, I just laughed about it because the NHL wasn't even close to being on the radar," he said. "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.
"We were at Buffalo Wild Wings, watching sports, hanging out with some of my teammates when my dad got a phone call from the president of the team I was playing for at the time," he said. "He was like, 'Where's Brogan right now?' And my dad says, 'He's right in front of me. Why?'"
News reports announced that 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."
Suddenly, a "two minutes for slashing" penalty seemed a little more ominous. Although the Craigslist killer had used a firearm and the murders had happened in another state, Rafferty's dad and mom, Deirdre, were worried that the name association would forever haunt their son.
"My parents were freaking out because they were like, 'Oh, it's the same name. He's not going to get a job because of background checks and everything.' But I didn't care. I thought it was crazy – I was getting Facebook friend requests from people in Ohio because that's where he was from – 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."
Playing defense was not a completely foreign concept to the young Rafferty.
"I grew up playing roller hockey and I was always a defenseman, and then I'd go play ice hockey and I'd be a forward," he said. "It wasn't as hard of a switch for me as some people think it might have been because I also played center, and you have a lot of defensive responsibilities as a centerman.
"Roller hockey is a puck-possession sport and as a defenseman you have the puck a lot on your stick, and with roller hockey being a slower version of the sport, you get to control the puck and direct where guys go in their lanes. Roller hockey is a lot of fun, like playing street hockey. But learning to play defense, there are definitely scenarios as a defenseman that take some getting used to when you first start playing."
After a season at the AAA level, Rafferty spent two seasons polishing his defensive skills in the North American Hockey League with the Coulee Region Chill and another season in the United States Hockey League with the Bloomington Thunder.
"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.
"It was kind of the same story," he said. "I kept getting cut from the USHL until I finally made it my third year of junior hockey, which was my 20-year-old season, 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 No. 1 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 unless something kind of crazy happens and you have to leave," he said. "So finally committing to a Division I school was a big relief."
Before turning pro, Rafferty played three seasons (2016-19) of ECAC Hockey against Ivy League schools and others. "Those three years were the biggest development years for me by far," he said. "At first, it was developing my offensive skills, but then it was more defensively. Things all came together during my junior year when I played a really well-rounded game, which led me to leave after that year."
Rafferty attended a couple of NHL development camps during his college years. He went to the Chicago Blackhawks after his freshman year. "I had a couple of teams reach out to me and Chicago was one of them," he said. "That was such a cool opportunity for me to play in front of some of my friends and family.
"It was held at Johnny's Icehouse in downtown Chicago. I was nervous because you don't really know what to expect. You do all the fitness testing for the first time, and you think somehow it all matters, even though it doesn't. They just want to get you there and introduce you to the organization. But it was good to see the pro level and how they operate and see what it takes to make it to that level."
His second camp was with the New York Rangers. "It was a similar experience, but in terms of nerves and everything, it was less so because this was my second camp. New York was convenient because I was staying at Quinnipiac in the summer, so I just drove over, which was nice. Both are great organizations and they run things very well."
Rafferty decided to forego his senior season at Quinnipiac to sign with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.
"There wasn't a ton of consideration [of returning to school]," he said. "I felt like I was ready to go, and I was also getting offers that backed that up. When you're in college and they're offering you to play in the NHL three days from when they're calling you, you're like, 'OK, this is real. This is my dream and it's hanging right in front of my face.
"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.
"I don't remember a ton," he confessed, admitting that the experience was a bit of a blur. "One minute I'm signing and then flying to Nashville, realizing I'm playing an NHL game tonight and I'm sitting in the locker room next to players I grew up watching.
"I don't think I had the best game, but I also didn't have a terrible game. There are a lot of emotions but the butterflies eventually go away. It's more that it's just a really, really cool experience for your family."
Rafferty 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 Game after being named the AHL Rookie of the Month for December. He was named to the 2019-20 AHL Second All-Star Team after the season was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"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.
"[Honestly], I didn't even really care about the NHL level at that point. I felt like, wherever my feet are, I'm going to focus all my efforts on that and not think about who's getting injured up top, or watching for this and that. It was a great year. Unfortunately, the season got ended by COVID."
Once the AHL season was canceled, Rafferty joined the Canucks in the playoff bubble until the team was eliminated several weeks later. He returned to the NHL level for the pandemic-delayed 2020-21 season, spending the entire campaign on the Canucks’ taxi squad.
"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 than when you are playing. Mentally, when you're in that situation – you know you're not getting in – it's very hard. We felt like we were being held prisoner because we were literally inside this gated area."
The taxi squad was usually segregated from the regular team to minimize potential exposure and disease spread. "We didn't skate with them much, so we did a lot of hard drills, battle drills, and we would shoot on the goalies to keep them ready, but the workouts were tough.
"It was a good experience being in the NHL bubble and seeing playoff hockey and seeing how an NHL team operates, but there was a lot of downside to it. There were long stretches where you couldn't go outside because the hotel was attached to the rink. There was this little area outside with picnic tables, but it felt like a prison. It takes the wind out of your sails, for sure."
After living alone in the playoff bubble for 70 days, Rafferty was joined by his future wife, Michelle, for the abbreviated 2020-21 season.
"We didn't pay attention to all the rules necessarily about social distancing and stuff because, at the end of the day, you have to live your life. We'd go outside and go for walks because we didn't see anything wrong with that. We would get out of our apartment and do something, occasionally grabbing a bite to eat. So we had a little fun. Otherwise, you'd go stir crazy."
Rafferty said some players handled the forced isolation better than others.
"Everyone was struggling, to be honest," he said. "No other family was allowed and because I was playing in Canada, no international travel was allowed because you would have to quarantine for 10 days. My grandma passed away in the States and I couldn't even go to her funeral. I had to watch on Zoom, which was really tough. That's the kind of stuff that really bothered me. And I wasn't even playing. I was barely a part of the team."
He finally saw action in one game midway through the season.
"I didn't know I was playing in the game until I got to the rink," he said. "One guy was kind of injured and they didn't know if he was going to be able to go. So they told me in the morning, 'Hey, you might be playing tonight if he can't go.' Suddenly I had to make that mental shift to turning it on again. Great, what's my game day routine? I completely forgot because I hadn't played a game in almost a year.
"I watched probably 30 minutes of video with the coaching staff, because when you're on the taxi squad you couldn't be a part of the video meetings that they would have every day. So I had to do video and I felt pretty overwhelmed. My whole routine was off.
"On the first play of the game, I had a bad turnover and they scored. On the bright side, I finished the game getting the second assist on a goal, so I got my first NHL point, which is cool. But I never played another game the rest of the year."
It was time for a change of scenery. In July, he signed a one-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks for the 2021-22 season then got married in Virginia Beach in August to his wife, who is a dental hygienist.
Signing with a U.S. team was a priority.
"I felt like I needed to get back into America. Canada was still going through their delayed re-openings and rules, and everything was so unsure. I think I wanted to part ways just as much as they probably did."
After attending Ducks training camp, Rafferty was assigned to their AHL affiliate in San Diego, where he spent the entire season. 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 on the ice and we had kind of a lackluster season. I never got a look in the NHL and that was frustrating because Anaheim wasn't great."
Rafferty packed his bags again and signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Seattle Kraken. He was assigned to the Coachella Valley Firebirds for their inaugural season in the AHL where he would play for Dan Bylsma, the Grand Haven, Michigan, native who had served as a Red Wings assistant coach under Jeff Blashill for three seasons after winning a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.
"The year in San Diego to the year with Coachella was a complete 180 in terms of how things were run," he said. "We had a really good team in Coachella and I could see it from day one of training camp. This was a special team.
"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 3-2 in overtime. "We had all the right pieces," he said. "We were just missing one piece: one goal at the end of the year."
The problem was Coachella Valley ran into a never-say-die Hershey team coached by Todd Nelson, who had previously led the Griffins to their second Calder Cup in 2017.
"In Game 7, we were up 2-0, they got a goal, and then they got a lucky goal off of a skate to tie it up. Then, in overtime, there was a scrum in front of our net, the puck was rattling around before it came loose and their guy scored. And it was over.
"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.
"Those emotions are running through everybody's head. And then it's over, and you're like, 'No, it can't be over.' We should have won. Sitting there on the bench, when it ended, I was extremely devastated. I would never wish that feeling upon anybody, except maybe those Hershey guys."
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 to look back on. It was a lot of fun and the coaches were outstanding, all of them were."
The Firebirds’ coaching staff included Jessica Campbell, a former forward with the Canadian women's national team who became the first female, behind-the-bench assistant coach in the AHL's 88-year history.
"We went to camp with an open mind, accepting the fact that she's probably here for a reason. If she was hired, let's show her respect and see where it takes us. She was definitely nervous the first couple of weeks, but she was outstanding once she got comfortable. She has a really good hockey mind. She had a really good eye for the game. And she delivered her message really well, which I appreciated.
"She was in charge of the power play and we had great power play numbers throughout the year and in the playoffs because she was able to get the most out of a lot of players. I have nothing but good things to say about Jess. She's very respected, now more than ever because she's proven to be a winner. The experiment worked; she's the real deal. It was a great year for her and for our team – because of her."
Rafferty tallied a career-high 51 points (9-42--51) in 72 games with the Firebirds, which led him to sign a two-year contract with the Red Wings last summer.
"I grew up a huge Red Wings fan, so they were always on my radar," said Rafferty, who lists Pavel Datsyuk as his favorite player as a boy. "I had one other buddy who was a Red Wings fan, but most everybody else followed the Blackhawks and there were a couple of Penguins fans.
"Even a few years ago, I thought if I could play here one day, it would be awesome. 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 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. It's awesome.
"It's amazing to watch her grow and pick up little things, like different words and different emotions. We think she's pretty smart. She knows the different sounds that animals make and she sings pretty well when we sing her songs. She has definitely changed our life."
He 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. That's No. 1 on the list because winning brings a lot of positives for the team and for individuals.
"I'm looking forward to getting involved in the community and 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 age 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, blah, blah, blah. 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 not the other guy.
"It's like I'm trying to clear my own name for something I didn't do."
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.