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Q&A With Al Iafrate

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
In 1993 and 1994, defenseman Al Iafrate represented the Washington Capitals in the NHL All-Star Game. In 1992-93 he was (along with Kevin Hatcher and Sylvain Cote) one of three defensemen to score 20 or more goals for Washington, the only time in NHL history that one team has had three 20-goal defensemen in the same season.


On Apr. 29, 1993, Iafrate became the first (and thus far, the only) Capitals defenseman to record a hat trick in a Stanley Cup playoff game. A fan favorite throughout his time with the Capitals, Iafrate was known for his swift skating and his hard shooting. At the Superskills competition at the 1994 NHL All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, Iafrate launched a shot that was clocked at a record 105.2 mph.

In his 256 regular season games as a Capital, Iafrate totaled 58 goals, 176 points and 616 penalty minutes. He ranks eighth all-time among Washington defensemen in scoring, despite playing 200 fewer games in the District than all seven of the blueliners ahead of him on that list.

Serious knee ailments forced Iafrate’s early retirement from the NHL, but he stays close to the game he loves these days by working as a sales rep for Warrior, a company that is making quick inroads into the NHL’s hockey stick market. Iafrate still gets back to Washington on a frequent basis, and we recently had a long and informative chat with him.

Obviously, you started your career using a wooden stick. Did you ever get over to the other materials later in your career?

When I retired in 1999, that was when the aluminum was kind of in full force and the carbon/graphite fiber industry was in its infancy. I was partial to wood because I’m a big believer in the stick being a linking system from the tip of the blade to the end of the handle. Just the way the technology was back then, especially with aluminum shafts, I never liked those. The composite back in the mid-90s was in its infancy. Wood was a better product in the mid-90s, for sure.

What about now? The guys who use wood can be counted on a couple hands. What’s been the difference?

I think it’s consistency. With wood, the manufacturing process, there would be a lot of inconsistencies with getting product where each curve was exactly the same, the blade width was the same and the shaft dimension was the same. There were a lot of irregularities. Some manufacturers were better than others, which is always the case. With composites, you’re basically getting replicas. There is always the margin of human error in manufacturing, but it’s 95% more consistent than wood was 100% of the time.

I think it helps the guy who has say an average shot, have a good shot. The standard of greatness isn’t easily attained; it’s like anything else. The guy who runs the 100-meter dash in nine seconds flat, it’s going to be hard for him to get a 10% increase in his time. But a guy who runs it in 12 seconds can get down to 10. It’s kind of the same with the stick.

Overall, I think it’s an increased sweet spot. Just the way the stick works, I think technology is getting more and more competitive and more and more advanced. With the carbon graphite, it’s no different than the oversized head of the golf club driver revolution. Except there is one big difference. When you’re selling a golf club driver for four or five hundred dollars, the sales pitch is, ‘You’re only going to use it nine or 10 times a round, it will last forever.’ A hockey stick of carbon graphite fiber is a valuable commodity now. Because of fuel cell technology they’re starting to use carbon graphite in airplanes. So it’s very tough to get the best grade carbon graphite fiber. The company I work for, that’s what they do. They buy aerospace-grade carbon graphite fiber and there is a shortage of it worldwide, and it’s not going to go away in the next year or two. There is always going to be the supply and demand.

Another reason guys get away from wood is because they’re creatures of habit. There are not a lot of wood sticks for young kids to buy. When they first buy a stick now, it’s a carbon graphite fiber stick. They kind of grow up with it.

So you’re saying the technology wouldn’t necessarily help a guy like you, who could really wire the puck.

If was I was the man I used to be, health-wise. I wish I could go back in time to being 25 years old and with this technology right now. I’d bet my life I’d shoot the puck harder.

One-ten, one-fifteen?

There are rumors that guys have shot the puck 120 miles an hour. I don’t believe that.

Yeah, I question the gun on that. That would put a hole in a goalie’s chest.

But 110, that’s something. Warrior, the company I work for, is the biggest lacrosse company in the world. We were at an event, the MLL championships in California. We did a competition where the guy who won the hardest shot in the MLL All-Star game had to throw a lacrosse ball and shoot a hockey puck and I had to shoot a hockey puck and throw a lacrosse ball. Needless to say, the guy threw [the lacrosse ball] 109 miles an hour. Which is pretty amazing. Outdoor lacrosse goalies, all they wear is a chest protector and a helmet.

The technology of these sticks is unbelievable compared to a stick that I would have used. With my sticks, you were more of a craftsman to get it exactly the way you wanted it. Now, we’re the craftsmen. I’m here, I’m the craftsman. My job is to help fulfill the needs of the players, to get them what they want.

When I started, guys had saws and files and they worked on their sticks for hours before the game. I still see them doing it, but I’m guessing they spend a lot less time at it now.

I’d say there is less time spent doing it. There are always guys who are going to tweak and look for a little advantage here and there.

How’d you get started in this business?

I’ve been in the hockey stick industry for four or five years, and recently – in the last year – with Warrior. The company is only one year old. It’s obviously the biggest lacrosse company in the world; it’s an independent division of New Balance. It’s a real young company. This is our second season in the NHL and we’ve got 20-25% of the market already, which is unparalleled in one year. The beauty of it is that we don’t pay players to use the product. We rely on the inherent technology to sell the product. At the end of the day, the best players in the world, if it is not a great product, they are eventually going to find something they want. That’s where we feel we have a huge advantage.

I taught hockey after I retired, and I coached little kids, my son and his friends. I feel I have an obligation to pass along all the knowledge I have developed and learned over the years. And the inferior products at that level is why I got into the stick business. There were way too many limitations, and kids were being set up to fail at the sport. I’m a student of the game, and hockey has been my life. The sport is struggling without any growth, because it is not an emerging market anymore like it was in the ’90s. Right now it is trying to keep whatever market share it does have, from the NHL all the way down to youth. I feel I have an obligation to try to help the sport, and help grow the sport. What it comes down to is if a young kid puts on a pair of skates, and they hurt his feet, and they’re not comfortable, and his gloves are the same and his shoulder pads are the same, and he has a stick that he can’t achieve anything with, the kid is not going to play the sport.

That’s what I believe. I just saw way too many kids who were set up to not enjoy the sport. Through the company I work with, I am trying to help produce the best product in the world.

I know you have a few clients on this team, and I see your sticks more and more around the league. What is a typical week or month like for you? How many teams will you visit?

I stick pretty close with the same six teams, and there are other reps who work with four or five teams each and there are about six or seven of us. I work with a team of guys who are the best in the world at what they do. Isaac Garcia, Ron Kunisaki and Jared Quartuccio, they were all with Innovative from the very beginning. Ron Kunisaki started the company from nothing, and it was purchased by Warrior about a year and a half ago. You’ve seen the success at the NHL level with Warrior, and it’s no different at the retail level. It’s 100 percent service and it’s a technology company.

A typical week for me is making sure all the players who are currently with stick are being serviced properly. They’re getting their product, and they’re happy with their product. Moving forward, doing a lot of research and development trying to create even better product in the future, and different technologies we’ll be coming out with that are going to revolutionize the hockey stick industry.

When you see a guy like [Alex Ovechkin] go through three or four sticks in a couple of games recently, what happens with those things when they just snap midway through the shaft?

A lot of different factors. Usually, to the best of my knowledge, when a stick explodes on the first shot that is a problem with how the shaft was wrapped, and obviously it was defective and it is going to break quickly. Then there is the tangible, where he may have been in the corner and a guy chops his stick and puts a little chink in the armor. And with a guy as powerful as Alexander Ovechkin, that weakness in the product is going to be exploited.

Needless to say, hockey sticks aren’t diamonds. They’re war clubs. What we do is we create the sword with the most technology in the product, and the ability for the players to change and define nuances. A lot of young guys, they’re looking for something. And a lot of times they don’t know what they’re looking for. What we try to do is help them find what they’re looking for after all our years of playing hockey.

How do you go about convincing a guy who uses another stick to use yours?

It’s not an easy task. Myself, I came into the league using a Koho, and 900 games later I was still using a Koho. Right off the bat, your challenge is success. All these guys are at the top level in their particular arena, so they got to the highest level using a particular product. [I rely on] Service, availability, being around, being humble. I believe in our product, and that there isn’t a company that can compete with what we can do at the NHL level. I know that doesn’t sound humble. But I’m humble in that I realize that I have to get better at what I do and learn more. There is a lot of knowledge that I will need to have and will need to attain to continue to producing … it’s going to be a learning curve. The technology is only going to get better and better and we are a company that is going to push that.

Do you still get to hang out and watch the games? Will you watch the game here tonight?

That kind of hurts my heart, doing that. When you’re playing hockey, there are things you wish you could still do. That’s the hardest thing. I guess I will always be an athlete, but being an ex-NHL hockey player is letting go of it. What your mind wants to do and what your body can do are two different things. It isn’t the roar of the crowd for me; it isn’t any of that.

I was always one of the guys that was a crowd favorite on the teams that I played for. That’s always something that makes you smile, because they appreciate everything you have worked for your whole life. Because that is what you are laying out there for them. The roar of the crowd meant a lot, but not being able to fly like an eagle anymore is the toughest thing about not playing anymore.

When I watch, I am just amazed at how fast the game is. When I came into the league 22 years ago, if you were a big, fast guy, you were a freak of nature. Now, if you’re not a fast guy, whether you are big, small or medium, you are a freak of nature. To play in this league now you’ve got to be able to skate. When I came into the league, I was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and I could skate like the wind. I was a freak of nature. But now, that’s par for the course. And that is what is supposed to happen as a sport evolves.

Wayne Gretzky once said that the tragedy of being a pro athlete is that your mental peak comes so far after your physical peak. So when you are young and you’re at your best physically, you don’t really have the mental wherewithal to make the most of it.

That’s very eloquently put. Man, that’s the truth. For sure.

What are some of your better memories about playing here in Washington?

The people. The organization. Dick Patrick, David Poile, Sluggo [former equipment manager Doug Shearer], Woody [assistant equipment manager Craig Leydig]. All the training staff. Stan Wong, the athletic trainer. Frank Costello, the strength coach. Jimmy Wiseman, the off-ice official. Everything about the place, the people off the ice, the people in the sport, the people on the team, the people in the front office, the people that worked at the arena, and the off-ice officials, they were all great people.

It was a great four-plus years of my life. Now that I am 40, that was 10 percent of my life. It was an unbelievable time. In pro sports, there is nothing like winning. And we had winning teams every year. Obviously, we never won the last game of the year. And when I say that, I mean we never won the Stanley Cup. But being first or second in the Patrick Division every year, being in the top five in power play and penalty killing pretty much every year, it was great. Unfortunately, we came across a great Pittsburgh team three years in a row. They were a great team. I’m a 100 percent believer that in a seven-game series, the better team always wins. Unfortunately we were a little bit short, but it was still a great time. There was a lot of personal achievement and team achievement, but it was the people that made it a great experience.

The culture than Dick and David built was very, what’s the word I want to use here, ‘Humbitious.’ Humble and ambitious at the same time.

How special was that year where you were one of three defensemen on the Caps to score 20 or more goals? That’s something that may never happen again.

That was great. I remember it was getting close to the end of the year, and everyone was ribbing [Sylvain Cote]. I think he scored it in Philly, if I remember correctly. I was thinking then, ‘Wow, this is going to be tough to break.’

With the new rules now and maybe making the net bigger or whatever they’re talking about, who knows? Three defensemen with 20 goals. Actually, Hatch had 34 and I had 25, I think. It was crazy. It was something.


 
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