We previously took a look at Gary Suter as one of the Flames best draft picks of all time. Now it’s time to focus on the other half of the dynamic duo.
In an interview, Patrick Roy was once asked if there was any one player in the NHL that he ever dreaded fac… Before the question could be answered, Roy exclaimed, “Al MacInnis!”
Before any discussion even begins about ol’ “Chopper”, the conversation always starts with one thing and one thing only… So let’s begin there!
If you have ever seen Don Cherry’s first installment of Rock’em Sock’em Hockey, you will see a clip of MacInnis wind up from outside the blue line and smoke Mike Liut right in the mask, who then falls into the net. Grapes sets it up with the comment, “The legend of Al MacInnis’ feared slap shot was born on this play.”
Liut wasn’t the only player to stare destiny in the eye when Al lifted the lumber. Roy’s fear most likely stemmed from a game where he was lying on the ice, sans helmet, and managed only a glimpse of MacInnis getting ready to unload. Jocelyn Thibault managed to get his glove in the way of one of his shots and was handsomely repaid with a broken finger. Mark Tinordi, in a gallant effort to spare his goalie the agony of trying to stop a shot from the point, blocked a MacInnis shot. The impact shattered his shin pad and forced Tinordi to miss the rest of the season with a broken leg.
The carnage wasn’t limited to those who played against Al though. Once, in warm up before a game, MacInnis (then with St. Louis) put a shot through the boards. That’s right…through the boards. Pretty sure Turek was glad it was one of the few times Al missed the net. One teammate who wasn’t so lucky was Rich Parent, who suffered a ruptured test…no need to finish that sentence.
Grant Fuhr was one goalie that got to see a lot of rubber fired his way while MacInnis was with Calgary. I can remember years ago in one of the sports annuals of note (Sports Illustrated?) saying, “As a goalie you’re not supposed to be scared of anything. The only thing I’m scared of is Al MacInnis’ slap shot.”
Al also used his shot for the forces of good. Having the bomb from the point meant he garnered respect (or fear) on the power play. One of the amazing things about his shot wasn’t just the force of it, but also how fast it was. It didn’t take MacInnis long to load up the big shot, and even less time to deliver it; which often left opposing forwards scrambling to get to him in time, and often late. When the shot wasn’t right on target, it was usually by design. A well placed shot just off to the side of the net meant an eager Joe Nieuwendyk waiting for the nifty deflection.
THE ANATOMY OF GREATNESS
So to whom does Al have to thank for his big shot? In reality, it wasn’t anything planned or by design, it was just boredom. As a kid, his Dad looked after the Port Hood, Nova Scotia local arena which meant that MacInnis had the opportunity to hang around a lot. To pass the time, junior would walk around the rink and gather all the pucks that were shot over the boards. What does a nine year old kid do with a bunch of pucks and even more time to kill? Why not set up a sheet of old plywood against your Dad’s barn and practice blasting those same pucks off of it? Given that Port Hood is not exactly the epicenter of excitement, Al had a lot of time to kill.
In 1979, MacInnis left the East Coast to and enjoyed a brief stint with the Regina Pat Blues of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Scoring 20 goals and 48 points in 59 games earned him a couple of games with the WHL’s Regina Pats. The brief audition was enough to book him a ticket back out east, where he joined the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
Once in Kitchener, people started to take notice of MacInnis and the big shot. Since he had been doing it since he was nine years old, it was not odd to see Al after on ice sessions practicing his shot. Rangers coach Joe Crozier often observed the young D-Man honing his skills and was not shy in telling him that someday Al’s shot was going to take him to the NHL.
Mac would make the most of his debut in the OHL. 39 points in 47 games and a league championship left him rated as the second best defensive prospect for the 1981 NHL draft. At a little over 6 feet and 200 lbs, MacInnis would be drafted by Calgary in 1981, 15th overall in the 1st round. After just two games with the Flames, he would be returned to Kitchener where he racked up a whopping 75 points in 59 games, en route to another OHL title as well as a Memorial Cup Championship and the Max Kaminsky trophy (the OHL’s version of the Norris).
In the 1983-84 season, MacInnis would score 19 points in 19 games with the Colorado Flames of the Central Hockey League before joining Calgary full time. There would be no looking back after that as he registered 11 goals, 34 assists for 45 pts in 51 games. It would be then, in his rookie season, that he would announce to the hockey world his arrival via Mike Liut and a split goalie mask.
FROM CHOPPER TO CHAMPION
When the Flames drafted MacInnis, there were many who thought he was going to be a bust. Some mocked the organization for drafting a defenseman just because of his shot. Though it may have brought him success in the OHL, MacInnis’ slap shot was not going to be able to cover his deficiency as a skater. In fact, it wasn’t the lumber, but his poor skating that earned him the nickname Chopper.
But the Flames were patient and so was MacInnis. Used mostly as a power play specialist, Al used the time not just to rack up the points, but to work on his game. Not satisfied with the shot being the only tool in his bag, MacInnis became a better skater and a prolific passer, which only made his shot that much more dangerous as it got more and more accurate. In a short manner of time he had rounded out his game to the degree that he would be a Norris finalist from 1989 to 1991.
Just how complete had Al’s game become? The 1989 season will forever be heralded by Flames fans, and for good reason. In addition to being a Norris finalist that year, MacInnis finished the season 5th in team scoring with 74 pts in 79 games; a good chunk of them helping Nieuwendyk tally 51 goals.
But probably more important was the effort he laid out in the playoffs. Leading the team with 34 points in 22 games and spearheading the franchise to its first (and only) Stanley Cup Championship. He was also the first defenseman in NHL history to lead the playoffs in scoring. For his performance, MacInnis was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy.
”Chopper” has always been grateful for the patience the Flames showed him early in his career and the confidence they demonstrated throughout his thirteen seasons with the organization. Within that span he would play in eight All-Star games and represent his country on two occasions; once in the 1990 World Championships and then a year later in the Canada Cup.
As a member of the St. Louis Blues MacInnis would finally win his Norris Trophy in 1999. He would go to seven more All-Star games. He would also represent Canada two more times in 1998 and then again as a member of Canada’s first gold medal team in 50 years, at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE?
On September 9th, 2005 after a locked-out season and worsening eye injury due to a detached retina, Al MacInnis retired from the game of hockey. After 23 years of giving everything he had to the game, it was time for the game to give back.
On April 9th, 2006, the St.Louis Blues retired MacInnis’ #2, the fifth player in team history to have his numbered retired. Parts of the ceremony included testimonials from players and former teammates like Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull. In his speech at the retirement ceremony, MacInnis had this to say.
"I wish I could skate one more shift, take one more slap shot from the blue line, for the best fans of hockey, But knowing my No. 2 will forever have a home here is more than I could ask.
I’m forever a St. Louis Blue."
Errrr… More on that later…
November 12, 2007. MacInnis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Ron Francis. He was the first player from Nova Scotia to have that honour bestowed upon him.
February 27th, 2012. After everyone else got their moments to praise Al MacInnis, it was time to go back to where it all began. Despite Al telling the thousands in attendance and the millions watching on TV in St. Lou that he was “forever a Blue”, The Calgary Flames decided to start with Al to launch their “Forever a Flame" program. Rather than following the lead of the Blues and giving Chopper his due alongside Mike Vernon and Lanny MacDonald, Al would instead be a pioneer that will pave the way for how the Flames organization will honour past and future greats that will hopefully give as much as Al MacInnis did to this franchise.
#3 on our list of the Flames All-time top draft picks, #2 in your Flames programs and #1 in your defensive hearts…