The 80s where a magical time to be a Leafs fan, and by
magical I mean hopeless and full of despair. It was a decade that taught Leafs
fans to appreciate the little things like knowing that someday your favourite
player would have the chance to win the cup for a contender, and that the Leafs
could always count on being just good enough to be out of contention for
drafting a player like Mario Lemieux.
In 1984 the Leafs finished with just 61 points, an
absolutely terrible record, but still 23 more than the actively tanking
Pittsburgh Penguins who won the Mario Lemieux derby and as a result Stanley
Cups a few years down the road.
We can take comfort in the fact that the Ballard era Leafs
were such a mess that Toronto would’ve passed on a francophone player at this
point and Kirk Muller would’ve been a Leaf a decade earlier, instead we can
take comfort that the Leafs lost the honourable way, finished fourth from the
bottom, and selected Al Iafrate, possibly their most exciting player of the
After failing to learn their lesson from rushing Jim
Benning, a top ten pick, offensive defenseman to the NHL, Iafrate suffered the
same the fate, and arguably never reached his full potential, but he did manage
two twenty goal seasons, and one sixty point year during his time with the,
until recently, worst Leafs teams imaginable.
Coming in at 6’3, Iafrate also played a physically strong
game which generally kept him out of the lineup more than the kiddie pool depth
Leafs would’ve liked. The 86-87 season was the only year that Al suited up for
all 80 games, and all six playoff games, where he managed to go over a point
That pretty much sums up Iafrate. He was flashes of
offensive brilliance mixed with the ability to hit like a truck…
And of course that shot (and skullet)…
- Fourth overall pick in 1984
- NHL All-Star in 1988, 1990
- Having the hardest shot in franchise history until Chad Kilger broke his record
Iafrate’s legacy is really the legacy of the Leafs player
development. Iafrate was rushed to the NHL, never developed, had to put up with
five coaches in seven years, and yet somehow managed to pull his career
together. As soon as he was at the top of his game, Iafrate was dealt.
We can take comfort in the fact that return for Iafrate were
two key pieces to early 90s Leafs revival, in Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse,
although as much as they became fan favourites, neither had the high end skill
of Iafrate, who would have been an interesting high end addition to the no name
blue line of the 93 and 94 teams.
Iafrate’s legacy is also one of being 80s hockey more interesting personalities, where what happened away from the ice seemed be as much a part of his story as his on-ice performance.
The following are excerpts From
a 1993 Sports Illustrated Interview…
On Iafrate’s Post
Draft Run-in with the Law
“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.
Now Iafrate is eager to set the record straight. ”What happened is that we got
into a fight with the bouncers at a strip joint,” he says. ”When they kicked
us out, we started busting up the outside of
the place, kicking in windows and stuff. They made it out in the papers like we
were standing on the corner whipping rocks.”
His ex-wife becoming involved with Gary Leeman
“When they separated, in January ’89 – their divorce became final 10 months
later — Iafrate took the better part of a month off from hockey. ”I needed to
get my life back together,” he says.
Especially hurtful was that Melissa had begun dating Gary Leeman, a Maple Leaf
teammate, after the separation. According to sources in Toronto, Iafrate
stopped attending team social functions when Leeman started showing up at them
with Melissa on his arm.
Smoking throughout his
Meanwhile, in a damp cranny behind the visitors’ dressing room in Chicago
Stadium, Iafrate vented his disgust between long, angry pulls on a postgame
cigarette. ”We’re —- soft,” he said. ”They pushed us around tonight!”
After a few contemplative puffs, Iafrate judged his own performance harshly.
”I didn’t play well,” he said. ”I tried to do too much.”
“Wild Thing” Al Iafrate’s departure from Toronto due to
being part of a poor on ice product and having issues in the locker room seem
to be the start of a consistent narrative that developed in Toronto over the
next couple of decades. An obsession with skilled players coming into camp
overweight, devaluing skill in favour of guys who kept their noses clean has
Really though, I think Don Cherry nailed Iafrate’s legacy in
the Rock’em Sock’em clip above, Iafrate did the end to end rush better than any
Leafs defenseman up until that point, and arguably it’s only now with Rielly
and Gardiner that the Leafs have offensive defensemen with the same gifts that
Iafrate possessed. Neither have his cannon of a shot, or his intimidating body
check, but hopefully they can make up for that with health and consistency.
It’s likely that Iafrate really was the most gifted
defenseman the Leafs had between Salming and Kaberle, but we didn’t really
notice because the 80s Leafs were so awful.