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Passion, confidence fueled MacInnis

by John McGourty / Calgary Flames

Trying to get Al MacInnis to brag is like teaching an elephant to skip rope, it's not gonna happen.

But the past winner of both the Conn Smythe and Norris trophies did take the time to share his excitement about being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame come Nov. 12.

Even then, the conversation is short on heroics and long on giving credit to others.

"You make choices in life and timing is everything," MacInnis said. "I'm very lucky to have made the choices that I did. I played for great organizations and great coaches and I played with a lot of great players."

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Take the thing for which he is famous, the hardest shot in hockey. No big deal, says MacInnis. No secret formula, either.

"There isn't a lot to do in a little town like Port Hood, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia," MacInnis said. "So, I just practiced my shot over and over again. Repetitions."

MacInnis' demeanor is definitely a product of his Scottish upbringing in the Maritimes. He came from a culture of hard work and refects it. To hear him tell it, his success has been mostly about being in the right place at the right time. Of course, others would tell you that MacInnis had a lot to do with making it the right time.

By the age of 16, MacInnis was playing three-quarters of the way across Canada, in Regina, Saskatchewan.

"Growing up in Port Hood, the nearest rink was about 30 miles away, in Port Hawkesbury. That's where I played, through my first year of Midgets. We represented Nova Scotia in the Air Canada Cup in Winnipeg. That's how I got scouted by the Regina Pats. Back then, they didn't have as many rules or rights to players. I went to Regina and played my second year of Midget Tier II with the Regina Pat Blues. I had no idea of what I was doing, but it was the best thing I could have done for my hockey career. At 16, you think you know everything about the world but I learned a lot and was treated very well. I had very good billets and my roommate was current Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, who was playing for the Regina Pats Tier I team that went to the Memorial Cup. Garth Butcher was on my team. He was from Regina and his family was very good to me.

"There's no question it was the right thing for me to do. I made a huge improvement and got drafted by the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL and the Sherbrooke Castors of the QMJHL. I chose Kitchener because it was probably the right league for me to play in terms of competition, plus the language barrier. Moving closer to home (from Regina) made sense."

Once again, good choices at the right time had an important influence on his career.

"We had a good team with players like Brian Bellows and Wendell Young and we lost the Memorial Cup final to the Cornwall Royals in Windsor," MacInnis recalled. "Scott Stevens and David Shaw joined us the next year and we beat the Sherbrooke Castors, the 'Q' team that drafted me, in Hull. I had a wonderful three years in Kitchener and great coaching from Orval Tessier the first year and Joe Crozier after that. Brian was a horse in the Memorial Cup and only 17, if I recall."

MacInnis was a horse too, being named to the Memorial Cup All Star Team. The Calgary Flames took MacInnis with the 15th overall pick in the 1981 Entry Draft. He was called up from Kitchener for two games that year and 14 the next before breaking in full time in 1982-83.

"I got called up in the middle of the season both years," MacInnis recalled. "Again, the rules are different now. The biggest difference was the pay! I was trying to get by on $45 a week in juniors. I made the best of it in Calgary. Anytime you have a chance to play in the NHL, it's all good. It was huge for my confidence, getting time under my belt in practice and NHL games, especially the games. From that, I realized what it took to play in the NHL. To get that experience at age 18, it was a real eye-opener.

"I had great teammates and they made me feel welcome. At first, I was in awe, sitting in the dressing room with veteran players and playing with stars. I had to get over that and the more you play, the less it happens."

It's hard to think of a better match of coach and player than MacInnis coming under the tutelage of "Badger Bob" Johnson, the Calgary coach who excelled at teaching power-play strategies.

"I've never played for a coach that enjoyed power-play work more than Bob," MacInnis said. "He would set aside a full hour and break up the team into two power-play units and two penalty-killing units. Each unit would play against each other for a minute and then switch. He just loved it. To me, he was ahead of his time in regard to teaching tactical hockey and the power play. He was an advanced student of the game.

"Under Bob, the Flames were always near the top power-play team in the NHL. We had at least one season when we were over 30-percent successful and that's unheard of. Just look at our right wings, Hakan Loob, Joe Mullen and Lanny McDonald. We had Joe Nieuwendyk and Joel Otto at center. Gary Roberts and Theo Fleury on the left side. Gary Suter was my partner on the other point for most of those years. We had so much talent and goal-scoring ability.

"We had great hockey players with great hockey sense. When you have that and a coach like Bob Johnson, it won us a lot of games."

Right time, right place again?

"That's how I got my start," MacInnis confirmed. "I was playing for the Flames' farm team in Denver when Paul Reinhart went down with a bad back. I got brought up as a power-play specialist, sitting on the bench for 10 or 11 minutes at a time, waiting for us to get a power play. As time went on, I worked at other parts of my game, but it was my shot and the power play that gave me a chance to play in the NHL."

MacInnis was usually partnered, 5-on-5, with Dana Murzyn or Jamie Macoun. Brad McCrimmon played full strength with Suter. They had Mike Vernon and Walmsley in net. The Flames won three-straight Smythe Division titles from 1988-90, winning the Stanley Cup once while their bitter division rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, won in 1988 and 1990. Three straight for the Smythe. The Flames also finished first or second in the Smythe in 10 of 12 seasons with MacInnis in the lineup.

He topped all players with 15 assists in the 1986 Stanley Cup Final and with 24 assists and 31 points in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final, when he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

"We had a very good team in 1989, when we won the Stanley Cup, and in 1986, when we lost the final to Montreal," he said. "We felt we should have won more. While we had all those skill guys, we also had big guys like Jim Peplinski, Mark and Tim Hunter and Brian MacLellan so we could play whatever style the other team wanted. We had a little bit of everything.

"The Smythe Division was tough with us and Edmonton," MacInnis said. "Playing against those great Oilers teams made us better in a shorter period of time. That was our biggest rivalry, the Battle of Alberta. Fans didn't care what we did against other teams if we beat Edmonton. They were our measuring stick. There were a lot of tough nights for us early on, but we got better and beat them a few times. They knew how to win as well."

Terry Crisp replaced Johnson as coach for the 1987-88 season and remained through 1990. Though Johnson and Crisp had different styles, the Flames flourished under both.

"Terry was the kind of coach who could get the best out of a veteran team," MacInnis said. "He won a Stanley Cup while playing with the Philadelphia Flyers under coach Fred Shero. When you win the Stanley Cup, as a player or coach, you have an understanding of what it takes, the ups and downs of the playoffs. That's what Terry brought. He was very vocal during games and called a spade a spade. There was no sugar-coating. Of course, with Terry there were a lot of funny moments and great stories. His heart was always in the right place."

MacInnis played five more years with Calgary, frustrating years in which the team qualified four times for the playoffs but went out in the first round. During that time, team personnel turned over and it was MacInnis's turn to go in 1994. He was traded to St. Louis with a fourth-round pick for Phil Housley and a pair of second rounders.

"Media expectations and fan expectations are high in Canada and when you don't have success, they look for changes," MacInnis said. "If you look back, Mike Vernon got traded, Joe Nieuwendyk got traded, I got traded. They felt they needed a change in team chemistry.

"I had an unusual situation, again different rules back then. I was a restricted/unrestricted free agent in that I had played out my contract. St. Louis made an offer and Calgary had to respond within a few days. They could have lost me. No other team was going to match St. Louis,. so Calgary basically made the best deal they could."

It was an unusual year to join the Blues. Mike Keenan had just taken the jobs of general manager and coach after winning the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers. In his 2 1/2 seasons, Keenan made 24 trades, leaving only Brett Hull and MacInnis from his first team. The player strike in 1995 limited the season to 48 games, but MacInnis played in only 32 regular-season games.

"I hurt my shoulder and had off-season surgery," MacInnis said. "One of the biggest reasons I signed with St. Louis was the players they had there then, guys like Craig Janney, Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph and Brett Hull. They had a very good team and I thought I'd be another piece of the puzzle. We finished high up in the regular season, then lost in the first round to Vancouver. Mike decided to make changes and change the culture of the team. I was with Mike before on Team Canada and knew he was very demanding. Some guys could handle it, others couldn't. He likes to deal more with a veteran team."

Joel Quenneville was brought in to coach the Blues during the 1996-97 and Larry Pleau became general manager. They performed a remarkable turnaround, guiding the team to the President's Trophy as the best regular-season team in 1999-00.

"Joel is absolutely a great coach," MacInnis said. "He really taught me a lot about playing on the defensive side, how important it was to shut off the passing lanes and stick positioning. Things other coaches weren't able to teach me. I didn't understand how important the stick was defensively. Joel improved my game.
MacInnis topped all players with 15 assists in the 1986 Stanley Cup Final and with 24 assists and 31 points in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final, when he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

"He was a well respected coach, a nice combination of tactics and emotions," MacInnis said. "I loved him as a coach and we had some great seasons here. Our success in the late 1990s was a tribute to Larry and Joel and to Larry trusting his scouting staff while being patient with the younger players, whether they were here or in Worcester. Larry Pleau did a great job of rebuilding this franchise. Now, Larry and John Davidson are doing it again and the future looks good."

It's a tribute to both Quenneville and MacInnis that he won the 1999 James Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. MacInnis was for many years regarded as an offensive defenseman, perhaps the best in the league, but the Norris Trophy meant he had become a quality all-around defender.

MacInnis looks back at his playing days in St. Louis and shakes his head. The Blues were eliminated by the Stanley Cup winner almost every year, in 1997 and 1998 by Detroit; by Dallas in 1999; by Colorado in 2001 and Detroit in 2002.

"We had a pretty good team and we lost to some pretty good teams," MacInnis said. "Goaltenders are never easy to find and we tried a number of them. It's one of those areas where you look back and think, 'what if?'

"I remember 1996 when Grant Fuhr was having an amazing season, but got hurt against the Maple Leafs. Jon Casey came in and did a great job, but we lost to Detroit in double overtime when Steve Yzerman scored from just inside the blue line. Double overtime! We had chances to score. Shayne Corson had a great chance in the first overtime and we didn't capitalize. Those things come back to haunt you. I would have loved to see Fuhr stay healthy.

"We had a great team in 2001, but we swept Chicago while Colorado needed seven games to eliminate Los Angeles. We had seven or eight days off. That's a long time for a goaltender. It's a lot like pitching; once you get in a groove you want to play your regular schedule. Roman Turek played great until the layoff, after which he never seemed to get confident again. Still, the last three games went into overtime, with Colorado winning the last two."

MacInnis retired before the 2005-06 season and is the vice president of hockey operations for the Blues. He was involved with the scouting department and Pleau at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft in Columbus and has assisted coach Andy Murray in instructing young players.

If any of these players can replicate the passion, confidence, skill and strength of Al MacInnis, they, too, may one day end up talking about a Hall of Fame career.

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