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.