The computer in his brain whirs as Flames winger Jarome Iginla crosses the blue line and gathers a pass from linemate Alex Tanguay early in an October game against the Canadiens. The data: 50 feet from the net, maybe 10 feet between him and Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who is 6'7" and has the reach of a 50,000-watt radio station after sundown. The decision: slap shot or snap shot?
This is an article from the Nov. 21, 2011 issue
In the way men generally regard themselves as excellent drivers, most NHL players believe they have terrific slap shots. In Iginla's case, this happens to be true. He has a full-blown Hammer of Thor that hisses through the offensive zone at close to 100 miles per hour. As a boy he ordered an instructional video in which Ray Bourque and other NHL stars taught the art of shooting—the wrister; its better-looking fraternal twin, the snapper (which, unlike the wrist shot, is accomplished with a short pull-back of the stick); and the slapper—and he would wind up in his Edmonton driveway or on the ice at Braeside Rink for hours on end. He loved to score, but he especially loved the visceral pleasure of scoring with a slap shot, punishing a puck and seeing it whip past a goalie and stretch the twine.
"The slap shot is a glamorous thing, the way it was," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says. "A guy coming down the wing, letting one fly. It was like a towering home run in baseball. There's nothing like it when a guy hits one of those majestic home runs—the ones where you just say, Wow."
The modern NHL was built on the Wow (if not the Tao) of the slap shot. This was a six-team regional league until 1967, when money and the big slapper off the wing—Bobby Hull spooking maskless goalies with swerving pucks that came off his banana-curved blade; Guy Lafleur, lank blond locks flowing, loosing one from the right flank; the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, pounding away—fueled the growth spurt that transported a mom-and-pop operation into today's $2.9 billion, 30-team business. The slap shot was the NHL signature. Its dunk. Its 50-yard bomb. It created historic goals, like Lafleur's 40-footer late in regulation that beat the Bruins' Gilles Gilbert low on the stick side to force a Game 7 overtime in the '79 semifinals and ultimately extend Montreal's dynasty by a year. And it demanded historic saves, like Bernie Parent's toe save that repelled a Ken Hodge blast late in Game 6 of the finals to preserve a 1--0 lead over Boston and make the 1974 Flyers the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. The slap shot inspired the poetry of announcer Danny Gallivan's "cannonading" drives. There would have been no "kick save and a beauty" without slap shots because there wouldn't have been a need for a beautiful kick save. And a certain movie starring Paul Newman and three bespectacled goons would have had to take a more prosaic title.
"There's something incredibly romantic about the slap shot," says Dave Poulin, Toronto's vice president of hockey operations. "There's a guy on our team, Phil Kessel, who has one of the best wrist shots in the game in terms of timing and release. Yet if he faced the choice of taking that wrister or blasting one-timers from the top of the circles, I bet he'd choose the one-timers."
Choices, choices. Back in Montreal, Iginla surveys the elongated Gill and his wingspan, eyes goalie Carey Price and considers his own body and stick positions, and whether he has enough time to wind up for a slap shot. He reaches a decision.
"You're kinda seeing slap shots disappear," says Price, who brushes the Calgary captain's snapper to the corner.
Some 30 minutes northwest of Price's crease and six decades earlier, according to the most widely repeated creation myth, the slap shot was "invented." Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who twice won the NHL scoring championship with the Canadiens, always assumed ownership of the innovation. (The nickname Boom Boom ... one more blessing from the slap shot's once limitless bounty.) As Geoffrion explained to son Danny, who would play 188 professional games, and grandson Blake, now a Predators left wing, one day he grew upset while practicing on an outdoor rink with his junior team in Laval, a Montreal suburb. He focused his anger on a puck at his feet, taking a wicked swipe. He watched it zoom. Like penicillin and Velcro, the slap shot, at least in this version of the story, was a happy accident. The discovery likely occurred around 1949 or '50. Of course, old Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall says he heard that a winger named George Ouellette, who would never make it out of the minors, actually had developed the slapper a few years earlier in Windsor, Ont. Then again, no sportswriter ever thought to call him Boom Boom.
"When I was five or six, I was shooting pucks in the backyard," says Blake Geoffrion, who's now 23. "Pappy comes out, takes my lefthanded stick, flips it"—the Boomer was a righthanded shot—"and starts firing away. One misses the net, and it actually tears a hole in the fence. He gives me my stick back, says, 'That's how you shoot a slapper,' and goes back into the house."
If it is relatively easy to date Geoffrion's midwifery, it is impossible to declare the date of the slap shot's passing because technically it is not extinct, merely an anachronism. On every night in every arena in the world, a triggerman on the point of the power play will take a pass from his partner and fire away. Blake Geoffrion's Nashville teammate, defenseman Shea Weber, can make goalies flinch with his industrial-strength slapper from the point. The Lightning's Steven Stamkos and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, routinely come off the half boards—again, with the man advantage—and shoot one-time lasers from the face-off circle. Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek will shoot slappers if he is on a two-on-one. Iginla guesses he scores three times a year on a slap shot. No, the slap shot is alive, especially in the form of the power-play one-timer, but the original Boom Boom--Hull--Lafleur slapper, the audacious shot that gave the game its soul, has been basically downgraded to a high-velocity dump-in. In the occasional moment when the old slap shot resurfaces—even strength, winger in full stride, big windup and Bombs away!—it seems mildly quaint, like a stand-up goalie or organ music in the arena.
The traditional slapper was on hockey's endangered species list before the 2004--05 lockout. Joe Mullen, the first American-born player to score 500 NHL goals, thinks the decline may have been hastened by the 1980s influx of Europeans, who favored puck possession and played on wider rinks that offered inhospitable angles for the slap shot.
That's his theory at least, and he's sticking to it. The diminishment of the original slap shot, however, can be primarily tied to these three factors.
• Time and space This is a black-and-white issue, at least visually. "Look at the frames of old hockey pictures," says the Leafs' Poulin. "You'll see one guy, no more than two, in the picture. Mahovlich's flying down the wing and no one else in sight. Now, snap a frame, and there are seldom less than three or four guys."
The current overcoached NHL game is played in what is effectively a 200-by-85-foot phone booth. There is neither time nor space for the hurtling winger to wind up, not with quicker defenders and relentless back pressure—a concept Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe, whose career in the WHA and the NHL stretched from 1973 to '95, says was utterly foreign to his generation. The gaps have shrunk as coaches hector defensemen to close quickly with opposing forwards in order to block shots or clog shooting lanes. "We're constantly talking about gaps," says former defenseman James Patrick, a Sabres assistant coach. "Gaps. Gaps. Gaps. Good gaps. Bad gaps. Our coaches will be watching another game, and somebody'll ask, 'See that gap?'"
Canadiens winger Erik Cole figures the extra time needed to unleash a slap shot is not merely counterproductive but potentially dangerous. "When you have somebody bearing down on you, with that big backswing and follow through ... you're leaving yourself vulnerable after a slap shot," Cole says. "You're not going to be in a position to avoid a guy finishing his check. You also won't be in a position to look for a rebound."
• Goalies Buffalo goalie coach Jim Corsi says if you take a 10-year-old with a modest knowledge of the butterfly blocking technique, dress him in modern equipment and position him at the top of the crease, an NHL slap shot from the wing will hit him almost every time. "Years ago a goalie had to have a quick [glove] hand," Corsi says. "Otherwise, the shot breaks his arm. Now...." Glenn Healy, a former goalie who is an analyst for the CBC, says the writing was on the half wall for the slap shot by the late 1980s when lighter pads enabled goalies to zip laterally when they saw a winger winding up. "By the mid-'90s if you were giving up goals like [Gilbert on Lafleur's playoff slapper]," Healy says, "you were out of the league."
In a gently ironic twist, the seeds of the slap shot's demise might have been sown as far back as its golden era, the mid 1970s, when goalies tugged on masks, swaddled themselves in plastic courage and eliminated at least some of the slapper's power of intimidation. And equipment improvements have kept pace with the staggering sophistication of the position. Even if a netminder happens to be a stiff, given the bulk of the well-armored modern goalie, he at least figures to be a big stiff. In 1960--61, when Geoffrion won his second scoring title, the six starting goalies—including Hall of Famers Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Gump Worsley and Hall—averaged a shade under 5'11", 187 pounds. The 30 goalies who played NHL openers this season averaged 6'2" and 202. (Twenty goalies 6'3" or taller are on NHL rosters.) "When I started in the league [in 1996], you could skate down the wing and sometimes see a hole," Iginla says. "Now we go down the wing and don't see anything. Even when we do slap it, it's just hoping. If I'm skating over the blue line, I'd rather carry it into the corner and try to work something out of there. Or maybe try a wrister."
• The stick In theory, the new generation of composite sticks should have made the slap shot an even more menacing weapon. In practice, the sticks have further eroded the slapper because they have made the snap shot and the wrister significantly more effective than they were with the old, less flexible sticks. The generally low kick points of the new sticks—the point where the shaft flexes when pressure is applied—"now [let you] load up the graphite without slapping the puck," says Wilson, the Leafs' coach. "A little bit of torque in the stick, the puck takes off." And up. With butterfly goalies covering the bottom two thirds of the four-by-six-foot net, an easy-to-lift wrister is more reliable than a wild slapper. The slap shot is like a cadenza in a concerto: basically, showing off. "With our coaches [a slap shot] probably is discouraged because you're not shooting to score and it doesn't create the proper rebound [near the face-off dots]," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier says. "You're just not as precise with the slap shot."
The Geoffrion family replaced their old backyard fence in suburban Nashville several years ago, but they kept a slat Boom Boom had perforated in honor of the patriarch, who died in 2006. An even newer fence went up three months ago, but this time, Blake Geoffrion sheepishly admits, the wooden testament to the power of man's transcendent imagination, and choler, was discarded. The grandson has no idea where the sainted slat is now but figures it might be lying on some scrap heap.
Not unlike the slap shot itself, if you think about it—still serviceable, but shopworn, and no longer required.