The complete package

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

You meet a million athletes in a lifetime of this work and most of them you can't remember from one day to the next.

But every once in a while -- for reasons not easily explained -- you meet one who seems different, real, complete. The kind you can't forget about.

You see them on their draft day, in suits that never seem to properly fit, and you shake their hands and you wish them luck and wonder how they'll turn out. Sometimes you guess right, some times you guess wrong.

The kid from Mabou with the monster slapshot fooled most of us.

He was shy and unsure of himself, and there was nothing about him that indicated he one day would be a star. If you said hello to Al MacInnis in his early years he was stuck for an answer.

MORE OF A TARGET

He was tall and awkward on draft day, just as tall and as skinny when he stumbled his way through his first training camp in Calgary.

It didn't help he talked with the unmistakable accent of Cape Breton. That only made him more of a target.

Nobody figured MacInnis for Hall of Fame back then.

Nobody figured him for much of anything other than a first-round choice gone bad.

He came to one training camp and then another and another after that. He got older and wider each year -- just not necessarily better.

One writer was so convinced MacInnis was a wash-out he bet me $50 that the defenceman wouldn't last 50 games in the National Hockey League.

Instead, MacInnis lasted long enough to earn more than $50 million in his career.

He made that much: For the record, I never collected on the $50 owed. (So as to protect the identity of the welcher, I will refer to him only as Scott Haskins of the Edmonton Sun.)

MacInnis had a stint in the minors prior to reaching the 50-game mark and then his career just took off. An early jolt of uncertainty helped. But somehow after that, he never seemed to stop.

He went from big shot to Big Shot. And around the most feared slapshot hockey has ever known, he built a game and a reputation and a marvellous career.

He could have been another Gaston Gingras or Jamie Heward: That would have been easy. He cared to be more than just another pretty shot.

And today, after losing one season to lockout and what would have been his last season to an eye injury, Al MacInnis will make it official. He will retire from the NHL, just not from hockey. He will continue to coach the two AAA kids teams in St. Louis he has been working with the past few years.

He will pass on to other players what the late Bob Johnson and Joel Quenneville and his better coaches passed on to him.

Funny how this week has turned out in this odd hockey summer. Scott Stevens and MacInnis, drafted one year apart, teammates on a Memorial Cup champion in Kitchener, called it quits within days of each other.

One was a hard rock, old school, tough-guy defenceman. The other, with apologies to Lex Luger, the total package.

That was MacInnis at his best. A power-play specialist. A penalty killer. The defenceman you wanted on the ice when you were up a goal or down a goal. The situation didn't seem to matter.

He was simply dependable. The shyness left him. The confidence grew. As a player. As a person. As an interview.

Among defencemen only Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey scored more in their careers. Al MacInnis is right behind them, third in career goals scored by a defenceman, third in assists, third in total points.

A career worth honouring. A career worth remembering. The skinny kid from nowhere did good.


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