By Kevin Paul DupontGlobe Staff, April 14, 2018
Al Iafrate’s advice? ‘Stay in school and get the degree, man’
Nothing might underscore the Bruins’ appreciation for the United States college game better than how their man-game totals broke down for the 2017-18 regular season.
To wit, man games for the following categories:
Players with Division 1 NCAA experience: 823 games.
Players with Canadian junior experience: 531 games.
Players solely with European experience: 207 games.
Indeed, things have changed dramatically from the days when Bob Miller, proud son of the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, was somewhat the anomaly as an ex-college kid wearing the Spoked-B, joined only his rookie year by fellow Spoked-B collegians Peter McNab, Mike Milbury, and Ron Grahame.
In Miller’s rookie season of 1977-78, the Bruins’ breakdown was:
Canadian junior: 1,113 games.
NCAA: 275 games.
European: 15 games, all from Matti Hagman.
Al Iafrate, among the most talented Americans to make it to the NHL, fast-tracked to the Maple Leafs’ lineup as an 18-year-old, after only a one-year primer with the 1984 US Olympic team and 10 junior games with OHL Belleville.
Had he to do it all over again, Iafrate said during a telephone interview the other day, he likely would have chosen the same path. But he nonetheless laments the fact now that he doesn’t have a college degree, one he might have earned had he chosen to take up Ron Mason’s offer to play at Michigan State during the Spartans’ heyday.
Nearly a decade spent in businesses related to the production of hockey sticks, more than half of those employed by Warrior, opened Iafrate’s eyes to what life is like in the business world without a college degree.
“A great business lesson,” said Iafrate, 52, who planned to be at the Garden Saturday night for Game 2 of the playoffs between his Leafs and his Bruins. “I learned that in corporate America, without a degree, you’re really limited in how far you can go. That’s the lesson, I guess – stay in school and get the degree, man.”
Nonetheless, as Iafrate’s case illustrates, it’s not always as clear cut for, say, kids who have a legit shot at being among the top 5-10 first-round draft picks in a given year. An uber talent on defense, the Planet was picked No. 4 overall by the Leafs in June 1984 and found himself that October manning a Blue and White back line with the likes of Jim Benning, Borje Salming, Gary Nylund, and Bob McGill. His game certainly didn’t need time to incubate in college hockey.
But that’s the exception, even in today’s game with clubs more eager to push teenagers into varsity lineups as a means of coping with salary-cap limitations. Far more typically, the kid drafted at 18, if he ever makes it, probably won’t pull on a varsity NHL sweater until age 22 or 23. So today, with three-plus decades of wisdom baked in, Iafrate figures most kids are better off tracking through colle.
“I went the other way, obviously, and that’s not easy, either,” he said. “But for the grind most kids go through, heck, why not go the college route and have something in your hip pocket to fall back on, something to prepare you for something else, whenever the time comes?”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, a first-round pick of the Blackhawks in 1983, recently said much the same thing. He had numerous college offers, including looks from some of the top Boston-area programs, but opted for the junior route at age 17. Had he not been pegged as a first-rounder, he said, the college track would have been the wiser decision.
“It prepares you better for life, I think,” said Iafrate. “And I’m saying that as someone who didn’t do it, obviously. But I’ve worked a lot with kids over the years, talked to kids, talked to their parents, and I just think it makes the most sense.”
Often the most alluring aspect of junior hockey, noted Iafrate, is the carrot of playing an expanded schedule without the added burden of the classroom. He remains an advocate of game experience, believing that his amateur days with Compuware in Detroit – with teammates Alfie Turcotte and Kevin Hatcher – went a long way in shaping his game.
“I bet we played at least 100 games together one year in midget hockey,” Iafrate recalled. “And I don’t care who you are, nothing makes you better than playing. But again, some of these young kids head off to junior because they’re told they’re going to play a lot right away. Often they don’t. So are they better being in junior, sitting in a press box and watching games, or better in college, playing a lot and getting their degree? Seems obvious, right?”
After 10 years, life in the stick-manufacturing business “ran its course,” said Iafrate. He recently obtained his real estate license and he’s a residential broker in Plymouth, Mich., next to his hometown of Livonia. Out of the game now for 20 years, he’s still recognized by some of his clients as the former NHL defenseman with the powerful skating stride and booming slapper.
“This is the Detroit area, Hockeytown, right?” he said. “So let’s put it this way, a lot more people would know me if I’d played for the Red Wings. It’s like when you play for the Bruins, you’re a Bostonian. And what I loved about being in Boston was, if you’re not a Bruin, then they want a piece of you. Toronto and Boston fans are the best in the world.”
A prediction on the Bruins-Leafs series?
“No comment,” said the Planet.
One of only 126 players to play for both franchises, Iafrate on Saturday night in the Garden had his choice to sit with Bruins alums or Leafs alums. A man torn.
“Not sure about that,” he said, asked if he would sit with the sinners or the saints at the Garden. “I’ll have to check out the food first.”