One day Tom Iafallo looked out at his backyard and realized it needed a renovation, or maybe an upgrade.
His son, Alex, and daughter, Julianna, had taken to shooting pucks and street hockey balls on the tennis court paved in the rear of their home in Eden, a small suburb south of Buffalo.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get a rink,’” he said. “At the time it was a big ordeal. But I thought it was important.”
So Iafallo set about building one, using 4-feet-by-8-feet plywood as the boards. It was “nothing crazy,” Julianna said, but it did its job for countless after-school sessions.
“It had lines, too,” Alex said. “It’s pretty fun. It was like when I was 10, so it was perfect. Go out there, stick handle and shoot.”
The seeds of two hockey careers were planted in that backyard. Alex went from that tennis court to being an undrafted free-agent signing for the Kings, and he has played top line left wing almost all of his rookie season. His homecoming is Saturday when the Kings play the Buffalo Sabres.
“It will give me a little goosebumps,” said Alex, 24. “I’ve got a bunch of fans coming from there — old friends, teachers from school. It will be a pretty cool experience going back.”
Tom and his wife, Barbara, won’t be able to attend because Saturday is senior night for Julianna, a forward for the Ohio State women’s hockey team, so they’ll be in Columbus, Ohio. After all, senior night only happens once. And judging by Alex’s debut season, he should make return trips here in what has become an impressive college-to-the-NHL story.
When the Kings held a fan forum in August at the Microsoft Theater, a panel of the hockey operations department discussed the new era of Kings hockey. Asked for one name to remember among their prospects, director of player development Nelson Emerson gave one that few knew.
“Alex Iafallo,” Emerson said. “This kid gives us another swing.”
Iafallo was an outlier: He played four years at Minnesota Duluth. Most upper-tier prospects get drafted before they finish college, so it was a red flag that Iafallo wasn’t.
“At that time, it didn’t click for him,” Emerson said.
Iafallo wears that as a chip on his shoulder. He participated in several development camps, including the Sabres’, and didn’t catch on. The extra year of college allowed him to develop, and he helped the Bulldogs reach the NCAA championship game.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL,” Iafallo said. “It’s always a dream, so I knew I could make it there. But I didn’t know when. I always thought about that, especially over summers, seeing kids I worked out with, skating with, that they’re drafted. It was always a motivating factor. My parents always instilled that in me.”
The Kings were high on Iafallo’s list, and vice-versa after amateur scout Tony Gasparini initially scouted Iafallo, who signed two weeks after Minnesota Duluth lost to Denver in the Frozen Four.
He was one of many prospects competing to crack the roster as the Kings transitioned to a quicker offensive game under first-year coach John Stevens. Iafallo stood out with his forecheck, instincts and long reach. He won the job out of camp and, outside of a two-game benching in January, has been a regular beside Anze Kopitar.
“He deserves the credit,” fellow rookie and roommate Adrian Kempe said. “I’m glad he made the team. He’s such a good worker and hard worker. It’s pretty hard when you come out of college right away to come into the NHL, especially our team too. We have a really good team and I wanted to crack the roster too. I’m glad we both did it.”
Tom still cringes when he sees Alex go into a corner to fight for a puck. Today’s NHL wingers are typically 6-foot-2, 220-pound wrecking balls. Alex is listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds, and much of his game is built around finesse. But Tom also can see why Alex emerges with the puck, because he did so many times when Tom played hockey with his kids.
“We used to play in the basement,” Tom said. “That’s the only thing I can credit it to. Back then I could control the game. As he got older, I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ ”
Julianna watched Alex come home from school and go directly to the backyard. His career sprouted from there, and knee surgery in 2012 made him take hockey more seriously. Few were prouder than Julianna when Alex made his NHL debut on Oct. 5.
“I was the little sister that saw him achieve so much,” said Julianna, who is two years younger than her brother. “I aspired to do that. He was probably one of the best role models I had growing up. He put on a good show as far as what it meant to be an athlete. He overcomes [adversity] daily. I want to do that. I want to be just like him.”
Brother and sister just missed seeing each other when the Kings went to Columbus in October, but Julianna was able to see Alex play in Detroit. What she saw looked familiar.
“People say that we skate alike,” she said. “We stole styles from each other, but I pretty much stole from him.”
The evolution, from the backyard to the NHL, is surreal for Tom. He runs a tavern in nearby Hamburg, The Town House, which is family-owned since 1962. It’s a hangout for Buffalo Bills fans, but lately the restaurant has turned some of its regulars into Kings fans, none bigger than the owner.
“Pretty amazing,” Tom said. “It was so much fun last year with the college season … I was sweating those games. But here, you’re just amazed to be here. It doesn’t settle in yet. It just doesn’t settle in.”
Alex would like to give his family a going-away gift by sticking it to his hometown team. The Kings haven’t won in Buffalo since 2003, a string of eight straight losses.
Said Alex, “We’ve got to break the curse.”
KINGS UP NEXT
When: Saturday, 10 a.m. PST.
On the air: TV: FSW; Radio: 790.
Update: Buffalo leading scorer Jack Eichel is out indefinitely with an ankle injury and winger Evander Kane is a frequent name in trade talk for Buffalo, tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the NHL’s worst home record at 8-16-4.