A gigantic defenceman who could skate like the wind, Al Iafrate was nearly swallowed up by the expectations thrust upon him as a teenager. He possessed raw skill few could match but his physical development exceeded his maturity by leaps and bounds. It took him four years to settle into the NHL, but he once he matured, Iafrate made a solid impact as a big leaguer.
Growing up in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Michigan, Iafrate first picked up the game in the local minor hockey system before joining the Detroit Compuware midgets. In 1982, the Motown squad, which also featured Pat Lafontaine and Alfie Turcotte, were upset by Team Illinois led by Ed Olczyk in a highly publicized national championship. Iafrate spent the 1983-84 campaign with the U.S. national team program, a time which culminated at the Sarajevo Olympics. The talented blueliner played the last ten games of the OHL regular season with the Belleville Bulls, who selected him sixth overall in the 1983 OHL draft, before settling down to wait for the NHL Draft.
Many scouts considered Iafrate to be the most talented player available next to obvious number one choice, Mario Lemieux. There were doubts about Iafrate’s commitment and maturity, but he was too gifted not to be taken in the top five. Mired in their worst organizational slump ever, the Toronto Maple Leafs chose Iafrate fourth overall. During the 1980s, the Maple Leafs constantly rushed young prospects into the NHL rather than give the required time to develop with their amateur squads or in the minor leagues. Iafrate was no exception, and, although he displayed flashes of brilliance in 1983-84, he lost confidence suiting up for a poor defensive team.
Iafrate scored 61 points in his first three seasons but was often overmatched by more experienced and physical forwards. The enigmatic blueliner didn’t help his cause in his second year by showing up a training camp 20 pounds overweight. Toronto coaches Dan Maloney and John Brophy worked on him so mercilessly that he left camp temporarily.
After a solid playoff in 1987, Iafrate turned down a chance to play for Team USA at the Canada Cup so he could work on his defensive play in Toronto. He broke through with two 20-goal performances in three seasons and was chosen to play in the 1988 and 1990 NHL All-Star Games. Iafrate’s career seemed to have finally taken off, but then a devastating knee injury in March 1990 set him back considerably.
After a lethargic first half in 1990-91, Iafrate was traded to the Washington Capitals where he began to reclaim his confidence. He set career bests with 25 goals and 66 points in 1992-93 and was named to the NHL Second all-star team. Iafrate’s goal total was second highest among NHL blueliners that year. He also played in the NHL All-Star Game and won the hardest shot event at the Skills Competition by unleashing as 105.2 mph blast.
Iafrate was traded to Boston for Joe Juneau late in the following season but soon after arriving his knee woes became chronic and he was forced to sit out the 1994-95 and the 1995-96 seasons. He was acquired by San Jose and resumed his career in 1996-97 but continued to miss a host of games due to injury. Iafrate retired in 1998 ending a decent career that promised so much more.