The computer in his brain whirs as Flames winger Jarome Iginla crosses the blue line and gathers a pass from linemate Alex Tanguay early in an October game against the Canadiens. The data: 50 feet from the net, maybe 10 feet between him and Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who is 6'7" and has the reach of a 50,000-watt radio station after sundown. The decision: slap shot or snap shot?
In the way men generally regard themselves as excellent drivers, most NHL players believe they have terrific slap shots. In Iginla's case, this happens to be true. He has a full-blown Hammer of Thor that hisses through the offensive zone at close to 100 miles per hour. As a boy he ordered an instructional video in which Ray Bourque and other NHL stars taught the art of shooting—the wrister; its better-looking fraternal twin, the snapper (which, unlike the wrist shot, is accomplished with a short pull-back of the stick); and the slapper—and he would wind up in his Edmonton driveway or on the ice at Braeside Rink for hours on end. He loved to score, but he especially loved the visceral pleasure of scoring with a slap shot, punishing a puck and seeing it whip past a goalie and stretch the twine.
"The slap shot is a glamorous thing, the way it was," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson says. "A guy coming down the wing, letting one fly. It was like a towering home run in baseball. There's nothing like it when a guy hits one of those majestic home runs—the ones where you just say, Wow."
The modern NHL was built on the Wow (if not the Tao) of the slap shot. This was a six-team regional league until 1967, when money and the big slapper off the wing—Bobby Hull spooking maskless goalies with swerving pucks that came off his banana-curved blade; Guy Lafleur, lank blond locks flowing, loosing one from the right flank; the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, pounding away—fueled the growth spurt that transported a mom-and-pop operation into today's $2.9 billion, 30-team business. The slap shot was the NHL signature. Its dunk. Its 50-yard bomb. It created historic goals, like Lafleur's 40-footer late in regulation that beat the Bruins' Gilles Gilbert low on the stick side to force a Game 7 overtime in the '79 semifinals and ultimately extend Montreal's dynasty by a year. And it demanded historic saves, like Bernie Parent's toe save that repelled a Ken Hodge blast late in Game 6 of the finals to preserve a 1--0 lead over Boston and make the 1974 Flyers the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. The slap shot inspired the poetry of announcer Danny Gallivan's "cannonading" drives. There would have been no "kick save and a beauty" without slap shots because there wouldn't have been a need for a beautiful kick save. And a certain movie starring Paul Newman and three bespectacled goons would have had to take a more prosaic title.
"There's something incredibly romantic about the slap shot," says Dave Poulin, Toronto's vice president of hockey operations. "There's a guy on our team, Phil Kessel, who has one of the best wrist shots in the game in terms of timing and release. Yet if he faced the choice of taking that wrister or blasting one-timers from the top of the circles, I bet he'd choose the one-timers."
Choices, choices. Back in Montreal, Iginla surveys the elongated Gill and his wingspan, eyes goalie Carey Price and considers his own body and stick positions, and whether he has enough time to wind up for a slap shot. He reaches a decision.
"You're kinda seeing slap shots disappear," says Price, who brushes the Calgary captain's snapper to the corner.
Some 30 minutes northwest of Price's crease and six decades earlier, according to the most widely repeated creation myth, the slap shot was "invented." Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, who twice won the NHL scoring championship with the Canadiens, always assumed ownership of the innovation. (The nickname Boom Boom ... one more blessing from the slap shot's once limitless bounty.) As Geoffrion explained to son Danny, who would play 188 professional games, and grandson Blake, now a Predators left wing, one day he grew upset while practicing on an outdoor rink with his junior team in Laval, a Montreal suburb. He focused his anger on a puck at his feet, taking a wicked swipe. He watched it zoom. Like penicillin and Velcro, the slap shot, at least in this version of the story, was a happy accident. The discovery likely occurred around 1949 or '50. Of course, old Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall says he heard that a winger named George Ouellette, who would never make it out of the minors, actually had developed the slapper a few years earlier in Windsor, Ont. Then again, no sportswriter ever thought to call him Boom Boom.
"When I was five or six, I was shooting pucks in the backyard," says Blake Geoffrion, who's now 23. "Pappy comes out, takes my lefthanded stick, flips it"—the Boomer was a righthanded shot—"and starts firing away. One misses the net, and it actually tears a hole in the fence. He gives me my stick back, says, 'That's how you shoot a slapper,' and goes back into the house."
If it is relatively easy to date Geoffrion's midwifery, it is impossible to declare the date of the slap shot's passing because technically it is not extinct, merely an anachronism. On every night in every arena in the world, a triggerman on the point of the power play will take a pass from his partner and fire away. Blake Geoffrion's Nashville teammate, defenseman Shea Weber, can make goalies flinch with his industrial-strength slapper from the point. The Lightning's Steven Stamkos and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, routinely come off the half boards—again, with the man advantage—and shoot one-time lasers from the face-off circle. Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek will shoot slappers if he is on a two-on-one. Iginla guesses he scores three times a year on a slap shot. No, the slap shot is alive, especially in the form of the power-play one-timer, but the original Boom Boom--Hull--Lafleur slapper, the audacious shot that gave the game its soul, has been basically downgraded to a high-velocity dump-in. In the occasional moment when the old slap shot resurfaces—even strength, winger in full stride, big windup and Bombs away!—it seems mildly quaint, like a stand-up goalie or organ music in the arena.