SUN Hockey Pool

Pastime 'paid off' for MacInnis

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

Slapping puck after puck at the family barn on Cape Breton Island as a youngster, Al MacInnis never dreamed his favourite summer pastime would ultimately land him in the NHL.

Using pucks he corralled all winter at the Port Hood hockey rink his father looked after, MacInnis developed a slapshot that not only opened the door for a pro career, but will land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.

"As it turned out, it paid off," MacInnis, 44, said with a laugh, reflecting fondly on growing up with seven siblings on the family's oceanside farm in Nova Scotia.

JUST A PASTIME

"Every other Canadian kid wanted to play in the NHL but I was just doing it for a pastime -- my town is a small fishing village of 900 and if it wasn't a beach day there wasn't anything to do. Never did I think I would ever play in the NHL -- it was another planet away."

By virtue of having one of the hardest shots on earth, the NHL was closer than he thought, even though he didn't have the luxury of a net to shoot at to test his accuracy.

"I think that's where the saying, 'you couldn't hit the broadside of the barn,' comes from," said the humble St. Louis Blues vice-president of hockey operations, whose father re-shingled the barn regularly because of errant blasts.

"I never hit a cow or any of the other animals, though."

Truth is, the shot that earned MacInnis 340 goals and status as the most feared power-play quarterback of an era, was almost always on the mark.

"Either I was never in front of the net or he was tremendously accurate," said former Flames teammate Jim Peplinski, unable to recall a MacInnis shot hitting him or a teammate.

"Were we afraid? Yeah. But his shot was probably more accurate than it was hard. Despite constant urging from (coach) Al MacNeil to whistle high shots at goalies he was never a guy who was mean-spirited when it came to his shot, even though he could've been."

Blessed with a work ethic that made him one of the league's fittest players, MacInnis also worked tirelessly on disguising his shot and being able to turn a windup into an outlet pass that left most goalies dead to rights.

"I'd break a lot of feet but it was never intentional -- I'd feel bad, only on a temporary basis," said MacInnis, who won seven hardest-shot competitions despite refusing to switch to composite sticks from wood.

"I was always conscious of it and I never ever wanted to hurt anybody."

One night early in his career his shot split the mask of Blues netminder Mike Liut, which did wonders to fuel the legend of a shot that had earned him a first-round selection by the Flames in 1981.

BLOSSOMED

After years as a power-play specialist who needed lots of work on his skating and defensive play, the former Kitchener Ranger blossomed into a complete player who was instrumental in the Calgary Flames' run to the 1986 Stanley Cup final. His official coming out party was 1989 when his club won the Cup and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

"The biggest thing I remember about 1989 was he just terrorized Patrick Roy," said MacNeil, who said nobody worked harder on conditioning or tried to learn more than MacInnis.

"He and Gary Suter were magic on the power play. Thing with Al is he was so fit that if he didn't hurt his eye, he could still be playing now."

Turns out he is, albeit strictly in alumni and charity games. One would assume the "no slapshot rule" is in effect when ol' Chopper, as he was nicknamed by MacNeil, shows up.

"We go to charity events and there are people who don't want to see me skate or anything -- they just want to see me shoot," said MacInnis, forced to retire in 2003 because of complications from an errant stick to the left eye in 2001.

"I do it out of being a good sport but I don't totally step into it. They don't want to miss work the next day."

The barn he used as a target is now gone, so is the sheet of plywood he used as a launching pad to the NHL.

What remains is a Stanley Cup ring, an Olympic gold medal, a Norris Trophy, 15 all-star game appearances and a legacy as one of the game's classiest ambassadors.

"I know everyone talks about that shot but it doesn't bug me -- the shot gave me a chance to play in the NHL," said MacInnis, somewhat stunned at his Hall of Fame nomination despite being the third-highest scoring defenceman in history.

"How do you react to the highest honour a league can award you? Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder, 'geez, are they sure they're making the right decision?' "

Like his legendary shot, the Hall of Fame is right on the mark with this one.

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THE AL MACINNIS FILE

- Born Inverness, N.S., on July 11, 1963.

- Played junior hockey for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, collecting 198 points in 157 games.

- Selected by the Calgary Flames in the first round, 15th overall, in 1981.

- Won a Stanley Cup with the Flames in 1989 and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

- Had a career high 103 points in 1990-91, collecting 28 goals and 75 assists for the Flames.

- Was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 1997 along with a draft pick for Phil Housley and two draft picks.

- Won the Norris Trophy in 1999 with the Blues.

- Known for his huge shot, MacInnis won seven hardest-shot contests. He did so with a wooden stick, choosing to snub composites.

- Decided to retire, in part, because of lingering effects from an eye injury suffered when he was hit by a stick in January 2001. Played his last game in October 2003 against the Nashville Predators.

- Played in 12 NHL all-star games.

- Finished his career with an impressive 340 goals and 932 assists for 1,272 points in 1,413 career games. He also notched 39 goals and 160 points in 177 playoff games.

WHAT THEY SAID

"I think that's where the saying, 'you couldn't hit the broadside of the barn,' comes from. I never hit a cow or any of the other animals, though."

-- Al MacInnis on growing up without a net to shoot at and instead using the family barn as a target.

"Were we afraid? Yeah. But his shot was probably more accurate than it was hard. Despite constant urging from (coach) Al MacNeil to whistle high shots at goalies, he was never a guy who was mean-spirited when it came to his shot, even though he could've been."

-- Former Flames teammate Jim Peplinski on MacInnis' feared slapshot.

"I'd break a lot of feet but it was never intentional -- I'd feel bad, only on a temporary basis."

-- MacInnis on doing damage with point blast.

"Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder, 'geez, are they sure they're making the right decision?' "

-- MacInnis on being selected to the Hall of Fame.


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