"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.