|Al Iafrate was an imposing blueline force over his 12-year career, which included three 20-goal seasons.
Iafrate won three of the first five hardest-shot competitions at the All-Star SuperSkills competition, including a record 105.2 mph laser that surely stretched the nylon netting to its extreme breaking point.
Iafrate’s slap shot was all power and drive and strength, macho force to the extreme.
Years later, as the 15th anniversary of his record blast approaches, Iafrate is asked just how he was able to generate so much force on his shot, how was he able to set the speed limit so high?
“I could tell you but I’d have to kill you,” he says with a chuckle.
Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 240 pounds, there’s little doubt the Dearborn, Mich., native still could do just that, even at age 41.
But thankfully, he was just joking. There was no joking, though, when it came to describing just how he was able to unleash a shot that weakened the knees of the stoutest shot blockers. It was a unique style that few, if any, players have duplicated.
“It’s definitely fundamental differences in technique in the way I shot,” Iafrate said.
Part of what made Iafrate’s shot so great was his ability to handle the puck. Growing up in Michigan, Iafrate played on a Detroit Compuware junior team with Pat Lafontaine and Alfie Turcotte. It was Turcotte’s father, Real, who helped Iafrate hone his skills.
“Turcotte’s stickhandling school. That’s where I learned it,” said Iafrate. “How to handle the puck, all the different moves he was teaching, the only way to do those moves was to move the bottom hand.
“The bottom hand is always moving on the stick. It’s never on the same part of the stick.”
By keeping his bottom hand moving, Iafrate was able to not only handle the puck better, he was able to generate far more torque on his shot. Add in his immense physical mass, and he was able to use the force to crank out high-velocity puck blasts. Call it Physics on Ice.
“I have a pretty unique shooting style,” said Iafrate. “In my backswing, my hand is on the blade of my stick. … That was me just figuring out that if I was skating 30 miles per hour, to stay on that direct A-to-B line, if I don’t move my bottom hand and I swing back, my feet are going to shift.”
Any coach will tell you that the puck will follow where the skates are pointing. So while his form may have been unorthodox, Iafrate’s shot plan was right on target.
“When you watch young kids shoot, they’re almost sideways facing the sideboards,” he said. “It’s easy for a goalie, because the shot is going where the feet are pointed.”
It never was easy for a goalie to stop Iafrate’s shot. Not only was it hard and fast, he kept it low.
“I was always taught if you shot the puck low, there were going to be opportunities for guys to tip it,” said Iafrate. “Also, it was beneficial to me (because) if I shot low, none of my teammates were going to be worried about getting in front of the net.”
There were no worries about that when he took part in the hardest-shot competitions. Iafrate could take a stride or two, get a full wind-up and unleash his full fury.
“Back in the day when you had to qualify (in team skills contests), I had shots that were over 106 – 106.9, 106.7. The actual record, it’s from the All-Star Game. That’s where the record is set. That’s understandable. It was fun doing it. It was fun because the fans really like that stuff.”
Fans in Toronto, Washington, Boston and San Jose enjoyed Iafrate during 14 seasons between 1984-85 and 1997-98 (he missed the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons recovering from knee surgery). Iafrate was taken fourth overall by the Maple Leafs in the 1984 draft, following Mario Lemieux, Kirk Muller and Ed Olczyk.
He debuted in the NHL at 18, but struggled through his first three seasons, totaling just 22 goals. But he broke out in 1987-88, matching his career mark in 77 games, with the 22 goals, tying Ian Turnbull’s Leafs record for goals in a season by a defenseman.
He nearly matched that mark in 1989-90, posting 21 goals in 75 games, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on March 24, 1990, and surgery ended his season. He struggled when he returned the next season, and Toronto traded him to Washington on Jan. 16, 1991, for Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse.
He worked his way back with the Capitals, and in 1992-93, he posted a career-best 25 goals. He also won the Capitals’ hardest-shot competition – as well as the club’s fastest-skater contest – and went to the 1993 All-Star Game in Montreal and rang out his record blast.
Iafrate already had won the initial contest in 1990 with a 96 mph shot, and his high speed stood until he shattered it in 1993. In 1994, he again won the contest, this time at “only” 102.7 mph. Since then, only Sheldon Souray and Adrian Aucoin at the 2004 competition, have broken 102 mph (they tied at a 102.2 mph clocking). Last year’s winner, Zdeno Chara, registered 100.4 mph.
“I think the closest I’ve been was 103.7,” said Chara. “I think it’s beatable, but it’s hard. Al Iafrate was one of the guys who had the hardest shot ever. We’ll see.”
What makes Iafrate’s mark stand out so much today, beyond the speed, is that he did it with a wooden stick. Iafrate said at the end of his career aluminum sticks started to become popular, but there was nothing like the carbon-fiber sticks that almost all players today use.
“I got to see the whole evolution of the aluminum and I tried those, never liked them,” said Iafrate. “At the end of my career was the infancy of the carbon-graphite fiber sticks.”
“I can still shoot over 100 (with the composite), and I’m not the man I used to be. I’m like a racehorse that has a bunch of crutches and wheelchairs.” said Iafrate, whose career ended in 1998, after stints with Boston and San Jose, due to the lingering effects of his 1990 knee injury.
Today a 41-year-old who works as a salesman for Warrior Hockey, goalies would shudder when they hear what Iafrate could have done in their prime if he had used a stick like Chara’s.
“I’d have two or three more miles an hour than what my record was, 108 to 110,” he said.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org