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Friday, November 9, 2007
2007 Hockey Hall of Fame -- Al MacInnis bio

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Al MacInnis played in 12 All-Star Games and won seven hardest-shot contests.

MacInnis now the man behind the scenes

By Scott Burnside

John Davidson showed up for work on his first day as president of the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2006 and looked at the team's depth chart.

"There were eight empty spaces," Davidson recalled.

Those holes were a sobering reflection of the once-proud franchise's decline.

But, a little over a year later, the Blues are slowly rebuilding their fan base and their position as a perennial playoff club.

While Davidson has been faced with a myriad of decisions since trading the broadcast booth for the boardroom, one decision he called a "no-brainer" was keeping former Blues defenseman Al MacInnis in the management loop.

The Blues' surprisingly rapid transformation from recent laughingstock to playoff contender has been buoyed by MacInnis, who is effecting his own transformation from Hockey Hall of Fame player to integral part of the management team as the vice president of hockey operations.

"I think the door's wide open for him," GM Larry Pleau told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "Al's involved in every decision with myself and J.D. He's got great opinions and he's not afraid to give his opinion. It's worked out really well."

No one is exactly sure what direction MacInnis' second hockey career will take him, including MacInnis, but he's certain he hopes that direction is up.

"Obviously, playing here in St. Louis for all the years I did, you've still got the passion for the Blue Note," MacInnis told ESPN.com. "I couldn't win a Stanley Cup here as a player, but I hope to win one here as a part of the organization."

MacInnis, who won a Stanley Cup and was playoff MVP with Calgary in 1989, was still among the game's elite defensemen when a lingering eye injury finally forced him to the sidelines just three games into the 2003-04 season.

"Every player would love to leave the game on their own terms," said MacInnis, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman with St. Louis in 1999 and recorded 68 points during the 2002-03 season. "I felt I was playing at a high level. I didn't feel like I was dropping off. With the eye injury, it was very discouraging."

If there was a bonus to the lockout, it's that it served as forced separation from the game, reinforcing that the time had come for MacInnis to walk away.

"I don't think there's anybody who leaves the game and doesn't miss it," MacInnis said. "All of a sudden, you wake up and you don't belong to a team anymore."

Still, the pragmatist in MacInnis didn't let him stew about what might have been for very long.

"I played for 23 years so I was, 'Give your head a shake,'" said MacInnis, a two-time Olympian who earned a gold medal for Canada in 2002. "I still had a great time playing and that helped put things in perspective."

MacInnis has four children, three boys, ages 15 and 11 and 6 (he coaches the 11-year-old's hockey team), and a 9-year-old daughter. Making up for lost family time has been an important aspect of his post-retirement transition.

"A lot of guys, including myself, want to take the next step at a very slow pace," he said.

But, ultimately, it came time to make that step.

MacInnis has three brothers who work at a newsprint mill near MacInnis' home town of Port Hood, Nova Scotia, and they often remind their star brother they've got an extra seat whenever he decides he wants to come home. Still, MacInnis knew whatever path he took, hockey was going to be part of that journey, and he knew his home was St. Louis.

"Hockey is my life," MacInnis said. "I've never thought of doing anything else. It's all I ever wanted to do. I always felt, or hoped, I would be part of hockey. I never really thought about being anything else."

MacInnis was, in a previous incarnation as veteran player, a kind of father figure to Barret Jackman, helping Jackman to a rookie of the year award in 2003. He is, in some ways, a father figure to young players in the Blues' system he oversees. Indeed, he is landlord to the Blues' franchise defenseman, Erik Johnson, who is playing in his first NHL season after being made the first overall choice in the 2006 draft. That wasn't just a coincidence, Davidson said. Johnson and MacInnis have been in close contact since then.

When MacInnis isn't on the road observing and/or talking to prospects, he is in the office going over the reports from team scouts. The coaching staff, led by Andy Murray, will often consult with MacInnis.

Echoing the sentiments of other stars who have moved from playing to working behind the scenes, MacInnis said he has been struck by how much work is involved in building an organization (or, in the case of the Blues, rebuilding one).

"As a player, you think, 'Sign a couple of draft picks, trade a couple of guys, what's the big deal?'" MacInnis said with a laugh. "It's nonstop. There really is no offseason [in management]."

Scouts, too, have earned special admiration from MacInnis for the ability to project what a player will evolve into from junior to the AHL to the NHL.

"Where can you see the guy in two, three years?" he said. "That part of it certainly is difficult. Believe me, there's a lot of different things about putting a team on the ice that can compete for a Stanley Cup."

Did he worry he wouldn't be able to do the job?

"Believe me, I'm still worried about it," he said.

Davidson has known MacInnis since the defenseman's days in Calgary, where Davidson used to call Flames games.

"He's got a great understanding of the game," Davidson said.

Part of that comes from MacInnis' youth, when he essentially made himself into a professional hockey player by literally shooting thousands of pucks off the side of the family barn. He took that devastating shot and became one of the best all-round defensemen of his generation and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"That wasn't by accident," Davidson said. "That was through sheer hard work."

If there is one thing that has surprised Davidson, it's MacInnis' stature in St. Louis. In a town where the local alumni association is one of the strongest in the NHL, MacInnis has a rare standing.

"He is revered here in St. Louis," Davidson said -- and not just among hockey fans, but among all sports fans. "And rightfully so."

In terms of personality, if fellow inductee Mark Messier is larger than life, MacInnis would qualify as almost smaller than life.

"He's just so understated, you'd hardly knew it was happening," Davidson said of the honors bestowed on MacInnis, including his jersey being retired by the Blues and his Hall induction.

That is not to suggest, however, that MacInnis is placid. While watching games, MacInnis acknowledged that he is up out of his seat, perhaps uttering comments that aren't "G rated."

"He's definitely someone who demands a presence when he's around," Pleau said. "When Al says something, people take notice.

"The pieces of the puzzle change so quickly," Pleau added. "He's got those attributes. There are lots of players who were more talented who never got to where Al got to. His character is why. You can't take Al lightly."

You couldn't on the ice and you can't in the boardroom.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

AL MACINNIS

THE BOTTOM LINE
• Teams: Calgary (1981-94), St. Louis (1994-2004).
• Games: 1,416
• Goals: 340
• Assists: 934
• Points: 1,274
• PIMs: 1,501

• MacInnis won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with the Flames in 1989.



MACINNIS HIGHLIGHTS

MELROSE'S TAKE

What will I remember most about Al MacInnis?

I'll remember him in Calgary. It's the 1993 playoffs and I am coaching the L.A. Kings. Heading into the first round against the Flames, I remember trying to devise a defensive strategy to keep the puck out of Al MacInnis' wheelhouse on their power play. There were hours of countless sleep on my part, trying to figure out a way to keep Gary Suter from getting the puck to MacInnis on the power play. We figured it out, we won, but that's the kind of influence MacInnis had on the opposition.

• The Melrose Line: Hall of Fame special

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