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Why Leaf patience with young “d” men is so crucial—remembering Al Iafrate: what might have been

The 80’s was not a good decade for the Leafs.  Oh, there were moments of hope, some good draft selections but by and large, it was a revolving door of coaches and players—and not many playoff rounds won.

Thee era was bad enough that the Leafs had the first pick overall in the entry draft one summer, and grabbed Wendel Clark.  That turned out to be a solid pick.  Clark, despite missing a lot of time due to injuries over the years in his three incarnations with the blue and white, became something of a hero in Leafland.  Fortuitously, he also brought a nice return—Mats Sundin—in the trade that sent Clark to the Nordiques in the summer of 1994.

Though the “80’s” was often a barren time for Leaf fans, many good players came through town.  One individual that demonstrated immense potential in the mid-later ‘80s was young defenseman Al Iafrate.

I think of Iafrate in part because, now with this current Leaf team, we have many young defensemen (Phaneuf, Schenn, Aulie, Gunnarsson and now Franson, with others in the pipeline) who bring an interesting and diverse skill set, from skating ability to toughness and big shots.

Back in the mid and later ‘80s, Iafrate had all of that—or at least most of it. 

Big Al (6 foot 3 as a recall, maybe 230 pounds) joined the Leafs as a high draft choice and was parachuted into the line-up when he was only 18—which, given his lack of time in junior hockey, was way too young at the time, at least in my view.  But desperation breeds rash decisions and the Leafs in those days were always looking for the “home run”, a quick saviour, whether it was Gary Nylund (a very high first-round selection in 1982, I think it was, also rushed into the line-up and then seriously injured) or any number of other high-profile junior draft picks.

So Iafrate played early, and often.  He showed flashes of stardom, but was almost always a “minus” player with the Leafs, though I’m guessing most of the players were in those mid-and later ’80 years.

For whatever reason, Iafrate had a reputation as a guy who was a bit of a ‘flake’.  Whether that was fair or not, or at all accurate, I have no idea.  I only know what I remember reading about him, which tended to play up that “crazy guy” image.  We’ve all since heard teammates speak of him as an unusual guy, so perhaps the descriptions were somewhat accurate.

In any event I do know the guy had talent.  He could really skate, had a big-time shot and seemed to have a legitimately promising future.  I clearly recall thinking this guy had a special skill set.  He used his height and size well.  With those long arms he could break up rushes.  For a big man, he was exceptionally agile.

And he was talented—really, really talented.  I particularly remember the late 1980s playoff series against a young Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings.  He was dominant at times, with his fine skating, long reach and ability to anticipate the play.

In fact, he twice scored more than 20 goals as a defenseman for Toronto, the last time in 1989-’90.  (The 1980s was a high-scoring era, but that number was still exceptional.)  A serious knee injury derailed his career for a while, but he still scored more than 20 goals for a third time with Washington in the 1992-’93 season.  Even in that higher-scoring NHL era, that was pretty impressive stuff. 

You’d like to think that, with the right kind of organizational support and coaching, a player like Iafrate would have blossomed in Toronto.  (Unfortunately he had issues with some teammates, and the organization dealt him during the 1990-’91 season to the Capitals for two guys who ended up playing significant roles in the Pat Burns era—Peter Zezel and defenseman Bob Rouse.)

But again, for whatever reason, a defenseman who was good enough to score more than 150 goals in 800 NHL regular season games, couldn’t find a long-term home in Toronto.  After the Caps, he also played with Boston briefly and then the Sharks before retiring at the young age of 31.

I’d be interested in hearing from Leaf fans of that era.  The ‘80s saw some good young players here, from Courtnall and Leeman to Wregget and Clark.  Do you recall Iafrate the way I do, or was he, to you, just another guy with “potential”?       


  1. He was a throwback to an earlier era that was trying to fit into what was a then changing game. Where most teams were starting to focus more and more on structured training regimens, Iafrate partied and smoked like an industrial chimney. He had the talent, but not the dedication, and no amount of easing him into the lineup would have changed that.

  2. Man, Iafrate was one of the first memories I have of when I began to realize that I was going to be an life long Leaf fan. My pops was just getting into the hockey thing cause cricket was not shown here. Since right after the news, it would be hockey night in Canada, my father began to watch.

    Iafrate looked like a giant out there and from what I remember was a tough guy. He finally became my favorite Leaf player after the all star game and I remember forcing my pops to buy me an Iafrate jersey. I must of been persistent to get a cheap brown man to spend that much on a

  3. "Clark......become something of a hero in Leafland"
    Apparently, it's understatement day in the Barilkosphere.

  4. Doesn't really matter if he couldn't find a long-term home in Toronto. You said it yourself - look at the return he brought.

    Would Iafrate have brought the Leafs greater success than key Burns-era players Zezel and Rouse? Hard to imagine the Leafs succeeding in the early 90s without the shutdown power of those two.

    And that's the bottom line. It's not a matter of whether a team can keep all of its talent - it's a matter of what they are able to turn that talent into.

  5. Bester30- glad the pice brought back some fond family memories, even if it took some prodding to get your Dad to spring for the sweater (I can relate, my Dad was not one to part with dollars easily...)

    KidK, OK, I get your point. (You also helped me spot a typo! Thanks...)

    GB- I agree with your point. I'm not arguing it was a bad trade; those two guys were great for the Leafs. I just wish the Leafs could have found a way to work with Ifrate, but maybe as Anon said above, that wasn't going to happen...