There was a moment when the inevitable was going to happen. The puck was ahead of defenseman Al MacInnis of the Calgary Flames, and he was closing the distance. Inevitable. Time was suspended at the top of a roller coaster. The slow was going to become very fast. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeow. The hardest slap shot in hockey soon would fly through the air.
No one else on the ice would count except MacInnis and the goalie. MacInnis would turn his body, a fluid and quick movement, the hands lifting the shortened Sherwood Feather-Balanced P.M.P. 7000 stick in a blur, the red letters on the white wood invisible as the stick went up in an arc, then came back down, faster, quicker....
The middle of the blade of the stick, wrapped in white tape, would connect with the side of the black puck. The blade, bent in a legal one-half-inch curve and then warped at the bottom, scooped, would lift the puck. The effect would be that of a seven-iron hitting a golf ball with malice....
"Where'd he get you?" Andy Moog, the Boston Bruin goalie who was the recipient of this shot on this night, was asked.
Moog had come from his net at the far end of the Boston Garden to challenge. What else could he do? On a slower shot, a weaker shot, he could stay back, protect against the possible pass. He would have time to react. There would be no time with this shot, this shooter. Moog had come out of his crease and skated almost to the face-off circle to meet the challenge. Fifteen feet away. Maybe 20.
He lay on the ice for almost four minutes as the team trainer worked to get him upright after the impact.
"Right here," Moog said in the safety of the Bruin locker room, showing a red circle the size of a bread plate on the right side of his naked body. "Right between the ribs. Got over one set of pads and under another. Knocked the wind out of me."
Inevitable. The hardest slap shot in hockey. Al MacInnis.
"You should have seen me at the beginning," the 28-year-old defenseman says. "That's all I could do. Shoot. They called me up-just to be on the power play. I was a specialist. I'd sit around and sit around and then we'd have a power play and I'd go out to the point to shoot. That's all I'd do. It was like that movie...was it Bull Durham? No, not Bull Durham. The other one, Major League. Charlie Sheen. I was the guy Charlie Sheen played, the guy who threw the baseball so hard but had no idea where it was going."
"I," MacInnis says, "was Wild Thing."
He is closer to the complete player now—10 full years in the league, improvements made in his skating and stickhandling and his overall sense of the game, second last year to Boston's Ray Bourque in the balloting for the Norris Trophy as the top NHL defenseman—but there still is a touch of the fastball wunderkind to him. How does he get that thing cranking like that? What is his secret? Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeow. On the scale of fear aroused, he is up there with Rob Dibble or Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens on a baseball diamond. He goes into his windup, and people begin to duck.
"The most amazing shot I ever saw him take wasn't even a goal," Flame coach Doug Risebrough says. "The goalie was Pete Peeters. Al was about 15 feet away from him, straight ahead. Al shot, and Peeters caught the puck in his glove. Then—and I've never seen any goalie do this—he dropped the glove off his hand, bent down and put his hand on the ice."
Put his hand on the ice? The speed of the puck, again, is roughly equivalent to the speed of a topflight major league fastball. The scientific babble of baseball commentary is missing, because a hockey shot is harder to time. The last time MacInnis's shot was clocked was this year in the skills competition before the NHL All-Star Game in Philadelphia. He won the hardest-shot contest with a 93-mph slap-per. It was the second straight year he had won the competition. No one else was above 90mph this year.
There are other players with hard slap shots in the league—Brett Hull in St. Louis, Al Iafrate in Washington, Stephane Richer in New Jersey are near the top of the list—but MacInnis's shot seems to be universally considered the scariest long-distance weapon. The Flames have had one of the most successful power plays for the past five years, and MacInnis is the major reason. The basic four-man box zone used by shorthanded teams has become an elongated rectangle against the Flames, as forwards have played closer and closer to the blue line in an attempt to stop his shot. Sometimes the rectangle has even been destroyed, one forward assigned only to mirror MacInnis.
The perfect MacInnis shot is a low-rising bullet from the point. The goalie must pick it up at the moment it leaves the stick, a few inches off the ice, and decide how high it is going to rise. Does he stop it with his pads? His stick? His glove? The judgment has to be made in an instant. The puck that starts a few inches off the ice could be four feet up by the time it reaches the net.
There also are variables. The puck may be spinning on the ice when it is hit, making it curve. The puck may be standing on end, a no-chance proposition for the goalie, the shot following the flighty course of a knuckleball—at 90 miles per hour. There also may be arms and legs and sticks in the way. The puck may change course at any moment, tipped by a piece of body or equipment. The Flames, naturally, are looking to tip the puck, the forwards standing near the crease and trying to bunt the fastball past the goalie and into the net. It is a mess of activity.
The shot was developed during the winters—and summers—of a faraway youth in Port Hood on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Port Hood is a small, turn-back-the-clock town, 700 people, no strangers, located on the west side of the island, open to the vagaries of the cold Atlantic Ocean. It is a place of big families and hard work and not a lot of money. A large paper mill employs some of the people, and most of the rest work in the fishing industry. For a while there was also a coal mine, the tunnels running a perilous two and three miles under the ocean.
MacInnis's father, Alex, was a miner at first, and Al can remember seeing him come home for dinner with coal dust all over his face, two eyes shining through the dirt. The mine closed, and he later became an assistant manager of a civic hockey rink that appeared, wonder of wonders, less than half a mile from the farm where the family lived. There were eight kids, six of them boys. MacInnis was the second youngest. All of the boys played hockey.
"None of us were thinking about playing in the NHL, though," the oldest brother, Brian, says. "That was someplace that was in another world. No one from our area ever had done it. Not even close. Just getting an NHL tryout would make you famous forever. We were just playing for ourselves."
Most of the early, organized hockey was played on lower levels in Port Hawkesbury, a 28-mile drive. MacInnis's mother, Annie Mae, 28 years a school teacher, would drive her assorted players to their assorted games in the green family Chrysler, waiting out the time in the cold rink. The disorganized hockey was played in Port Hood. Before the rink was built, there was a pond that froze in the winter, carved out of the ground behind the MacInnis farm. There were constant games, constant activity. There was plywood in the summer. Plywood?
"There weren't any swimming pools or day camps or movie theaters or any organized activities in the summer, so you had to be creative with your time," MacInnis says. "We had a piece of plywood on the ground and a four-by-six piece of plywood against the barn as a goal. I'd just go out there with a bucket of pucks and start shooting at that piece of plywood. The problem was, I didn't hit it all that much. Every fall, my father would be out there again, putting up shingles where I'd knocked them off during the summer. It never changed. Every fall."
The shot somehow arrived. Somewhere in all of this practice it appeared. Who knows how these things happen? Even now MacInnis cannot explain why his shot is harder, faster than his brothers' shots, than anyone else's shot. It was a gift. He has heard people try to explain about the 6'2", 195-pound size of his body and the unusually short stick and the arc that he takes and...a gift. Bob Feller could throw fastballs at the side of a barn in Van Meter, Iowa, a thousand years ago. MacInnis could knock the edges off the barn in Port Hood, Nova Scotia.
By the time he was 15, he was taking the shot with him and marveling at the big-city lights (big-city lights?) of Regina, Saskatchewan, in Junior A hockey. By the time he was 18, he was taking his first slappers at a goalie in Calgary. The shot was leading the way, and he simply was following, traveling to places where no one else from his hometown had gone.
"I remember he came up, he had this big reputation from junior, this kid who was scoring goals from the red line," says Bruin backup goaltender Reggie Lemelin, a Flame when MacInnis appeared. "I had a lot of fun with him. We'd work out after practice. I'd say, 'Keep it low, or you're going to be shooting at an empty net. Understand?' He'd break the toes of my skates. I'd make a stop, and the toe would be crushed. I'd go right into the dressing room for another pair of skates. Uh-uh, I wasn't going to stay out there with a broken toe on my skates. Not against him."
The first gift MacInnis bought when he signed with the Flames was a satellite dish for his mother and father. It was one of the first satellite dishes in all of Port Hood. The house became a winter gathering place for the increasingly large family—MacInnis now has 21 nieces and nephews, and his wife, Jackie, is pregnant with their first child—and on the TV there were some sights to see. The highlight was the Flames' Stanley Cup championship in 1989. All of Port Hood celebrated. MacInnis was selected as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs.
"I remember I didn't know what to buy when I signed, but I think now that I made the perfect choice," he says. "My mom passed away last summer. Cancer. All eight of us and our father were there at the hospital. I think of her watching those games on that television in the winter of Port Hood. I think of her driving all of us to that arena, the way she loved hockey. She wouldn't have liked anything better, just watching those games."
He now makes a million dollars a year, working the second year of a four-year, $4 million contract signed during this sudden hockey-salary boom. He collected 103 points (28 goals, 75 assists) last year, only the fourth defenseman in history to go past 100 points. He has been injured a bit this season, missing two weeks with a separated shoulder as the Flames have struggled below the .500 mark, but he is back and firing and making other people duck. If anything, the shot has seemed even more lethal. It has sent at least three opposing skaters—Stephane Matteau of the Chicago Blackhawks, Troy Murray of the Winnipeg Jets and Mark Tinordi of the Minnesota North Stars—onto the injured list this year.
Matteau suffered a broken ankle when he was hit by a MacInnis shot. Murray's injury was more gruesome. The puck struck his shinbone and tore open a hole. "It was amazing," Jet coach John Paddock said. "The puck sort of ripped open this hole in his shinbone the size of a quarter, maybe a 50-cent piece."
Tinordi was injured in a strange incident in an early-season game in Calgary. The North Stars, trailing, had pulled their goalie in the final moments. MacInnis got the puck behind his net and sent it around the boards, trying to clear the zone. Tinordi, a defenseman, tried to stop the puck at the point by sticking out his leg. The puck glanced off the area behind his knee and went to one of the Flames, who took it down the ice to score an insurance goal. Tinordi limped to the bench.
A week later the two teams played again, in Minnesota. MacInnis noticed Tinordi, a friend, in street clothes with crutches and a cast before the game. MacInnis asked him what the problem was. Tinordi jokingly said at first, "The problem is you tried to ruin my career," and then explained how the puck had crushed a nerve in the back of his leg. The nerve controlled the up-and-down movements of his foot. Now it was damaged. He was waiting for the slow regeneration of the nerve, out of action until that happened.
"I told him, though, that it wasn't a hard shot," Tinordi says. "It just hit at a freak angle or something. And that's the truth. If it was a hard shot from Al MacInnis, I'd probably never be walking again."
Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeow. A legend quietly grows.