Welcome to Friday night at Hammerjacks, a heavy-metal club on the outskirts of Baltimore. For those standing near the dumpster-sized amplifiers, earplugs are recommended; management is not responsible for hearing loss. At Hammerjacks drinks arc served in plastic cups, and the bouncers look like they're moonlighting members of the World Wrestling Federation. As he leans against one of the club's 14 bars, cigarette in one hand, vodka-and-tonic in the other, the left sleeve of his Harley-Davidson T-shirt not quite covering a multicolored tattoo, Al Iafrate could not be more at home.
Unless, perhaps, he was bursting Bobby Orr-like around some hapless opponent, then cranking a 100-plus-mph slap shot past a wincing, overmatched goalie. In fact, at the All-Star skills segment last weekend in Montreal, Iafrate won the hardest-shot competition by blasting a puck 105.2 mph. Iafrate (pronounced i-uh-FRAY-tee), who turns 27 next month but is already in his ninth NHL season, has never looked more at ease on the ice than he does with the Washington Capitals this season. With 18 goals at week's end, he was second among the league's defensemen in goal scoring as well as the NHL's leading authority on heavy metal and Harleys. And if the Caps are to do anything big in the playoffs, they will need big plays from Iafrate, whom they acquired in 1991 from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Nine years after he was selected, at 17, to play for the U.S. Olympic team and eight years after the Leafs picked him fourth overall in the NHL draft, Iafrate is at last living up to his mammoth advance billing. This is happening, not coincidentally, as he lives down a reputation for hell-raising and womanizing that earned him the nicknames Wild Thing and Alley Cat and made his name synonymous with the phrase "personal problems."
Despite a plenitude of what Iafrate describes as "rock bunnies" at Hammerjacks this evening, the Alley Cat is not on the prowl. "Before this season I vowed to concentrate on hockey and my daughter," he says. Meg, 2½, is Iafrate's daughter by a former girlfriend, with whom he settled a paternity suit in 1990. Meg lives with her mother in St. Louis, and Iafrate tries to stay in touch with her as often as possible.
Iafrate has joined the headbangers at Hammerjacks not to flirt or fight but to enjoy the music. Still, members of Rex Hunter, tonight's first band, could not be blamed for wishing that Iafrate had stayed home. As the band members take the stage, sporting the requisite skintight outfits and luxurious manes, Iafrate proclaims loudly, "Hey, these guys are better looking than half the broads here."
After the band performs several deafening numbers, the lead singer promises to do a couple of original songs, prompting Iafrate to shout, "Screw the originals. Play more cover tunes!" On the dance floor Rex Hunter groupies turn and glare.
"I actually respect the hell out of these guys," says Iafrate. "They're dreamers, you know? They dream of making it to the big time. Right now it's like they're in the minors. I can relate to them."
His empathy is touching but a little misleading. On his express-elevator ride to the NHL, Iafrate spent all of 10 games in junior hockey. If he can relate to the musicians, it's mainly because he sees himself as a fellow entertainer. For Iafrate the only sin greater than losing is being boring in defeat. "I try to make a difference," he says. "I just try to get noticed."
It has never been difficult to notice Iafrate. At 17 he stood 6'3," weighed 210 pounds and skated like Rocket Richard. He was plucked from Detroit Compuware, a midget league team, to play for the U.S. Olympic team in the '84 Games. For Iafrate the disappointment of Team USA's seventh-place finish in Sarajevo was soothed when he was drafted that June by the Maple Leafs.
"I had a man's body," he recalls. It was topped, however, by the head of a dimwitted adolescent. A month after the draft Iafrate fell asleep at the wheel of his car on his way home to Livonia, Mich., from a party in Ontario. His car flipped, he bruised all the ribs on the right side of his body, and he was cited by police for careless driving. Less than two weeks later Iafrate and three friends were arrested in Windsor, Ont., for malicious mischief. The local papers reported that the boys had broken several streetlamps by throwing rocks at them.