By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman
Look at that face.
Mark Mancari appears to be the type of hockey player who relishes nothing more than unleashing his record-setting slapshot at one end of the ice, smashing his opponent into the boards at the other end and then enjoying a good laugh about it after the game with the boys.
The Chicago Wolves 26-year-old forward looks like someone who grew up in London, Ontario with an older brother and several older male cousins – all of whom played hockey and didn’t take it easy on the young guy.
The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Mancari looks like someone who benefited from the years when his family housed players for the London Knights – the hometown entry in the Ontario Hockey League.
He looks like someone whose father, Gabe, served as Eric Lindros’ youth coach for two years before passing along his knowledge to his nephews and boys.
He looks like someone whose mother, Christine, merely shook her head and smiled as she endured the constant “THWACK, THWACK, THWACK” that echoed through the house when young Mark practiced his slapshot against the cement wall in the family’s unfinished basement.
Canada long has been filled with hockey-crazy youth, but Mancari might rank among its craziest. “I was 3 years old when I had the stick in my hands,” Mancari said. “There’s a picture of me standing in skates and a diaper. I don’t know how old I was in that one, but I was definitely not 3.”
Allow Christine Mancari to fill in the details: “When he was two-and-a-half, we bought him skates, a helmet and a coat for Christmas. As soon as he saw them, he pulled off his pajamas and wanted that helmet, coat and skates on.”
Every day during Mark’s childhood, he either worked on his skills at home or went to the rink with his family to watch his brother, cousins or the juniors who lived at his house. Youth-league games, London Knights games…it didn’t matter. If there was a puck and a scoreboard, Mark was there to soak up the atmosphere.
“We’d be at the rink and I’d be the kid shooting tape around or following (my brother and cousins) around, so it was nice,” Mancari said. “I watched every single home game for the Knights. I was at every home game for maybe six years straight.
“I was the kid who wanted to be with the people who talked about the game. I would be sitting there and listening and looking and trying to learn. I was the first kid in line after the games trying to get autographs. I just loved being around the rink.”
Gabe Mancari used to think Mark didn’t pay much attention sometimes. Then he’d quiz the boy as they rode home.
“He could tell his dad everything that happened,” Christine Mancari said. “He was always very serious about the game. It was just his love and passion.”
There’s more than one way to measure how that love and passion has paid off. For example, the years he spent in his basement (and garage) rocketing shots off walls laid the foundation for his record-setting slapshot. At the American Hockey League’s All-Star festivities in 2008, Mancari set the AHL mark with a slapshot clocked at 102.8 miles per hour.
For his effort, Mancari got to send his stick to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto (where it is scheduled to return to an exhibit soon) and got to show off his sense of humor for the crowd.
After setting the mark, he participated in an on-ice interview where the announcer noted, with some amusement, that Mancari led his team in assists but not goals. Mancari’s response? “Yeah, I don’t have great aim. I think a lot of guys get the rebounds and it goes that way.”
The thousands in the stands chuckled at his self-deprecating move, which worked better than explaining all the hours he put in perfecting his technique and the extraordinary torque required to fire a puck that fast.
“Shooting has always been a technique,” Mancari said. “I’ve broken it down and now it’s more of a habit. I always try to hit the ice at a certain point behind the puck. I always try to get it on a certain part of my blade. If you ask a lot of players, they’ll always talk about what types of sticks they use. I’ve really tailored mine to be a shooting stick and use that as an asset.”
And that asset isn’t just for show. The Vancouver Canucks signed Mancari on July 1 based on his proven ability to score. He entered this year with 151 AHL and 3 National Hockey League goals in six seasons as a pro.
Those numbers include his monstrous 2010-11 season with the Portland Pirates, when he produced 32 goals in just 56 games and made the 2010-11 AHL First All-Star Team. His biggest highlight? In a 24-hour period last January, he posted a hat trick on Saturday night in Portland, Maine and another hat trick on Sunday afternoon in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“That was surreal,” Mancari said. “After you get your second goal, you know, you’re looking for your hat trick. You can feel it. The coach is putting you out there every second shift. He’s trying to help you out. Kevin Dineen was amazing for that.”
Mancari’s play earned his longest NHL promotion to date. He played 20 regular-season games for the Buffalo Sabres, then commuted between the Portland Pirates and the Sabres throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He finally received the chance to play in the Sabres’ gut-wrenching Game 7 loss at Philadelphia.
“To dress for that game, that was the highest emotion I’ve ever felt,” Mancari said. “To be in the room afterward with the players I’ve spent six of my years with – you know, going up and down – was very emotional.
“We had guys like Mike Grier, who was uncertain what he was going to do (he retired Dec. 1). He was a tremendous player, great person. I had so much respect for him. To see him and (Rob) Niedermayer and Patrick Lalime all unsure what they were going to do with their careers, it was really emotional.
“You work so hard. You go through so much. Your highs. Your lows. You’re moving your family with kids from one city to another. You put so much time and effort and emotion into the game and to see those guys sit there and say goodbye to their career? That game is something I’m going to carry with me for a long time.”
Mancari, like every professional hockey player, looks forward to the day when an NHL dressing room becomes his regular work address. But as he progresses in his career, he recognizes how important it is to stay focused on the task at hand.
“You can’t think about what’s going on in Vancouver,” he said. “You can’t think about, ‘Is my phone going to ring today?’ And I’ve made that mistake for four years previous. You have to go out and you have to remember you are a member of the Chicago Wolves. And you have to do what you can to make this time here a good time. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to win. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to do the best you can --- because that’s all you can control.
“My friend, Mathieu Darche, played with me a whole year in the minors with Buffalo. Didn’t get one (NHL) game. The next year, his whole year was in (Tampa Bay). A 31-year-old guy got his first one-way (contract) and he’s been in the NHL ever since. It’s all about opportunity. It’s all about finding the right fit. I think I’m in a pretty good organization for that.”