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The Wild Thing

Al Iafrate likes motorcycles, heavy metal and playing defense for the Capitals

Welcome to Friday night at Hammerjacks, a heavy-metal club on the outskirts of Baltimore. For those standing near the dumpster-sized amplifiers, earplugs are recommended; management is not responsible for hearing loss. At Hammerjacks drinks arc served in plastic cups, and the bouncers look like they're moonlighting members of the World Wrestling Federation. As he leans against one of the club's 14 bars, cigarette in one hand, vodka-and-tonic in the other, the left sleeve of his Harley-Davidson T-shirt not quite covering a multicolored tattoo, Al Iafrate could not be more at home.

Unless, perhaps, he was bursting Bobby Orr-like around some hapless opponent, then cranking a 100-plus-mph slap shot past a wincing, overmatched goalie. In fact, at the All-Star skills segment last weekend in Montreal, Iafrate won the hardest-shot competition by blasting a puck 105.2 mph. Iafrate (pronounced i-uh-FRAY-tee), who turns 27 next month but is already in his ninth NHL season, has never looked more at ease on the ice than he does with the Washington Capitals this season. With 18 goals at week's end, he was second among the league's defensemen in goal scoring as well as the NHL's leading authority on heavy metal and Harleys. And if the Caps are to do anything big in the playoffs, they will need big plays from Iafrate, whom they acquired in 1991 from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nine years after he was selected, at 17, to play for the U.S. Olympic team and eight years after the Leafs picked him fourth overall in the NHL draft, Iafrate is at last living up to his mammoth advance billing. This is happening, not coincidentally, as he lives down a reputation for hell-raising and womanizing that earned him the nicknames Wild Thing and Alley Cat and made his name synonymous with the phrase "personal problems."

Despite a plenitude of what Iafrate describes as "rock bunnies" at Hammerjacks this evening, the Alley Cat is not on the prowl. "Before this season I vowed to concentrate on hockey and my daughter," he says. Meg, 2½, is Iafrate's daughter by a former girlfriend, with whom he settled a paternity suit in 1990. Meg lives with her mother in St. Louis, and Iafrate tries to stay in touch with her as often as possible.

Iafrate has joined the headbangers at Hammerjacks not to flirt or fight but to enjoy the music. Still, members of Rex Hunter, tonight's first band, could not be blamed for wishing that Iafrate had stayed home. As the band members take the stage, sporting the requisite skintight outfits and luxurious manes, Iafrate proclaims loudly, "Hey, these guys are better looking than half the broads here."

After the band performs several deafening numbers, the lead singer promises to do a couple of original songs, prompting Iafrate to shout, "Screw the originals. Play more cover tunes!" On the dance floor Rex Hunter groupies turn and glare.

"I actually respect the hell out of these guys," says Iafrate. "They're dreamers, you know? They dream of making it to the big time. Right now it's like they're in the minors. I can relate to them."

His empathy is touching but a little misleading. On his express-elevator ride to the NHL, Iafrate spent all of 10 games in junior hockey. If he can relate to the musicians, it's mainly because he sees himself as a fellow entertainer. For Iafrate the only sin greater than losing is being boring in defeat. "I try to make a difference," he says. "I just try to get noticed."

It has never been difficult to notice Iafrate. At 17 he stood 6'3," weighed 210 pounds and skated like Rocket Richard. He was plucked from Detroit Compuware, a midget league team, to play for the U.S. Olympic team in the '84 Games. For Iafrate the disappointment of Team USA's seventh-place finish in Sarajevo was soothed when he was drafted that June by the Maple Leafs.

"I had a man's body," he recalls. It was topped, however, by the head of a dimwitted adolescent. A month after the draft Iafrate fell asleep at the wheel of his car on his way home to Livonia, Mich., from a party in Ontario. His car flipped, he bruised all the ribs on the right side of his body, and he was cited by police for careless driving. Less than two weeks later Iafrate and three friends were arrested in Windsor, Ont., for malicious mischief. The local papers reported that the boys had broken several streetlamps by throwing rocks at them.

Now Iafrate is eager to set the record straight. "What happened is that we got into a fight with the bouncers at a strip joint," he says. "When they kicked us out, we started busting up the outside of the place, kicking in windows and stuff. They made it out in the papers like we were standing on the corner whipping rocks."

The rank injustice of it all.

But Iafrate's second preseason wasn't much smoother than his first. He arrived for training camp at 250 pounds, 30 over his playing weight. He explained to then coach Dan Maloney that he had tried skating during the summer but that his feet had blistered, so he had said "the hell with it."

"He had all the skills," says former Leaf assistant coach Garry Lariviere, searching for a tactful way to frame his next thought, "but the mental game didn't fall into place."

In his first three seasons Iafrate scored five, eight and nine goals, respectively. In 1987-88 he had a breakthrough 22-goal season and played in his first All-Star Game. Off the ice, however, his marriage was dissolving. In 1986 he had married Melissa Weber, his high school sweetheart. When they separated, in January '89—their divorce became final 10 months later—Iafrate took the better part of a month off from hockey. "I needed to get my life back together," he says.

Especially hurtful was that Melissa had begun dating Gary Leeman, a Maple Leaf teammate, after the separation. According to sources in Toronto, Iafrate stopped attending team social functions when Leeman started showing up at them with Melissa on his arm.

That wasn't the only difficulty Iafrate had in Toronto. In an on-ice collision with only a few games remaining in the '89-90 season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and underwent reconstructive surgery. With the help of aggressive therapy, Iafrate returned for the start of the next season, but his knee flared up and his play suffered. Iafrate then fell into disfavor with Tom Watt, the fifth coach he'd had in his seven years with the Leafs. Watt, who preached defense, sought to end Iafrate's spontaneous rushes into the offensive zone.

"They wanted me to get the puck and flip it out to the forwards," says Iafrate, still incredulous 2½ years later. "I'm like, Man, you want somebody to flip it out, get some guy who's happy just to be in the league. I've got too much to offer! I want to excite people. I want to excite myself!"

On Jan. 16, 1991, the Leafs traded Iafrate to Washington for defenseman Bob Rouse and center Peter Zezel. It was widely viewed as a risky deal for Washington. Zezel was a slick-passing center, Rouse a sturdy defenseman. Meanwhile question marks swirled around Iafrate's knee and head.

Iafrate lived under a microscope in Toronto and complained that his life had been "opened up like a can of worms." He saw the trade as his personal emancipation. Says Capital general manager David Poile, "Washington is not what you'd call a pressure-packed hockey atmosphere." Still, in 30 games with the Caps that season Iafrate had just six goals.

The benefits of his escape from Toronto took awhile to kick in. Iafrate sums them up thusly: "I made some really cool friends." While judging a bikini contest in Annapolis during that first off-season, he got to talking to one of his fellow judges, Willie Heflin, an automobile wholesaler. The conversation turned to motorcycles: Iafrate owns two Harleys. As it happens, Willie's brother Sonny does custom work on Harleys, and Iafrate has become friends with both brothers. "They're both married and have kids," says Iafrate. "I go over right around dinnertime and play with the kids."

Sonny, who has since opened Custom Cycle Works in Crofton, Md., is in the process of customizing Iafrate's Springer Softail. "When he's in town, he's at the shop just about every day," says Sonny. "We don't talk that much about hockey."

Says Michael Lee, another friend of Iafrate's: "That's because Al goes into the shop and says, 'Hey, guys, I made the All-Star team!' and they say, 'Cool, Al, check out this carburetor.' "

Iafrate's social circle widened further when Lee, the program director at Rock 103, a Baltimore radio station, found out that Iafrate was a devoted listener. Soon Iafrate was cohosting a weekly show called The Afternoon Power Play with Al Iafrate. The two-hour show has attracted a cult following. Iafrate selects the music, older heavy-metal standards by artists such as Ozzy Osbourne and Sammy Hagar, plus some newer music, by groups like Copperhead, Asphalt Ballet and Badlands. "He's turned us on to some pretty cool stuff," says Lee. In Al Sings, a segment on the program, Iafrate sings a tune and callers can win Capital tickets by naming it. "I can sing anything that requires me to sound like an attack dog," he says.

Callers talk to Iafrate about heavy metal, motorcycles, tattoos and, less frequently, hockey. Exchanges are, for the most part, civil. There are exceptions. Upon learning that Iafrate had a subcompact Volkswagen, one rocket scientist called in and accused Iafrate of driving "a fag car."

"Buddy," said Iafrate before disconnecting the jerk, "my girlfriends could kick your ass."

The truth, according to Iafrate, is that he has led a monk's life this season, and he points to his play to back up that claim. Indeed, after a tepid start Iafrate caught fire around Thanksgiving. In 10 games between Nov. 25 and Dec. 12, he had eight goals and 14 assists. The Capitals went 9-1 during that stretch. "When Al is on," says Capital coach Terry Murray, "he brings people out of their seats every time he touches the puck."

The key to his surge has been an increased use of his gray matter, which had never before been Iafrate's strong suit. "Al's biggest improvement has come in his reading of the game," says Murray. "There are only two or three times a night that I want a defenseman joining the attack. He's picking the right moments."

When he does get caught up-ice, Iafrate can often erase the error with pure speed. And if he catches you, duck and cover. Although he rarely fights—"Every time I do, I break a facial bone"—he delights in crushing opponents along the boards. Said Chicago Blackhawk forward Dirk Graham, "When he runs into you, you remember it."

Graham didn't mind paying Iafrate that compliment last month, because Chicago had just physically dominated the Capitals in a 6-2 win. Meanwhile, in a damp cranny behind the visitors' dressing room in Chicago Stadium, Iafrate vented his disgust between long, angry pulls on a postgame cigarette. "We're——soft," he said. "They pushed us around tonight!"

After a few contemplative puffs, Iafrate judged his own performance harshly. "I didn't play well," he said. "I tried to do too much." With his free hand he daubed cautiously at a fresh cut over his left eye. In the third period Iafrate had collided with Chicago's Steve Smith, whose stick blade sliced his face. Referee Kerry Fraser ruled the cut accidental and made no call. Between slow-motion replays of the incident, television cameras zoomed in on Iafrate's wound.

At the news that he had gotten some airtime, Iafrate brightened. "Hey," he said, "at least I got noticed."



Iafrate has finally shown the drive to be one of the league's top players.



Iafrate boasts the NHL's hardest shot, clocked at more than 100 mph.