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Former Leafs defenceman Al Iafrate blows into town as free a spirit as ever

TORONTO - A blast from the hockey past blew into town on Wednesday.

Al Iafrate was a free spirit in his playing days - with the Leafs from 1984 to 1991 - and remains a free spirit today. He sat at the head table at the annual Rogers Conn Smyth Sports Celebrities Dinner and Auction, and talked about a range of topics in a pre-dinner interview.

The former NHL defenceman was known for having one of the hardest shots in the league and he played in four all-star games. His wit remains sharp, but he no longers has hair on the top of his head.

"It waved bye-bye and was gone," he said.

Iafrate lives in Livonia, Mich., where he was born and raised, and he works with the Warrior sports apparel and equipment company.

"I do some work with stick producers and some sales at the pro level so I do see a lot of hockey," he said.

Living in the Detroit region doesn't mean he buys into the Red Wings' marketing slogans.

"My whole life I've tried to explain to people in America ... being in Detroit, it's Hockeytown, so they say," he said. "I call it Red Wings Town.

"Canada is Hockeytown, there's no doubt about it. The fabric of the sport is Canadian for sure."

Media attention paid to the Leafs "seems a lot more magnified now" than in his day. That could be explained by the proliferation of all-sports TV and radio stations since his playing days.

He has only one regret.

"There's nothing like it," he said of playing in the NHL. "I had great personal accolades and individual accomplishments.

"I won championships at every level. The only thing I didn't win was a Stanley Cup. There isn't a day that goes by ... that's the one thing I always think about."

He helped Toronto get to the second playoff round twice.

"Just being in a room with 20 other guys and having a common goal to accomplish it together ... it's an awesome feeling," he said.

Iafrate was asked what it was like to lose games by wide margins, as the present-day Leafs did Tuesday in falling 8-0 to the Florida Panthers.

"I remember a game against Calgary, a favourite to win the Cup, we had them down 5-1 going into the third period and we lost 6-5," he said. "I'll never forget that game.

"I wasn't on the ice for any of the goals against, of course. I was a plus-five," he lied while chuckling. "That's the beauty of athletics.

"For a guy like me, who played 14 years in the NHL, that's what I miss. You can work in the business world and there's never that sense of ultimately being in control with your teammates. When the door swings open you get to totally redeem yourself every day. It's an up-and-down, tumultuous ride. To be able to live that is what you miss.

"When you get beat 8-0, the next day you get to redeem yourself, man. You get to prove all the critics wrong. That's the beauty about being an athlete.

"You think Tom Brady or anybody on that (New England Patriots) team doesn't think he's good anymore because he lost a football game? That's the beauty about being an athlete. Nobody above you in management or heirarchy can control how good you're going to be. Only you can."

He fondly recalls late Leafs owner Harold Ballard. It was a blast, he said.

"Playing for Harold was fun. I had fun when I was a Maple Leaf, and there's no hockey town like Toronto."

Ballard often sat in the Maple Leaf Gardens seats watching practice, and sometimes he'd yell to the coaches or players.

"Sometimes you didn't know he was there and you'd go, 'Is God speaking?"'

Iafrate had tatoos before tatoos were popular. He used to horse around at the end of practices.

"I could take a one-handed slapshot pretty hard and he'd say, 'Hey, take that one-handed slapshot. Do it again. Do it again.' It was all good times. That was 20 years ago and I remember it to this day so it had to be fun."


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