In Part Two of 5 For Writing’s lengthy interview with former NHL goaltender Mark Laforest, Laforest and I talk about his tenure with the Flyers under Mike Keenan and subsequent stints with the Maple Leafs and Senators. But Laforest also speaks openly about his bouts with alcoholism and depression, and how he’s been sober for the past 14 years.
Mike Ashmore, 5 For Writing: So, the Flyers got to the playoffs in your first season there, and you actually ended up winning a playoff game in relief of Ron Hextall. What do you remember about that?
Mark Laforest: “We were playing, and I’m an avid smoker of cigarettes (laughs). (Mike) Keenan used to freak on me all the time, right? He’d catch you in the skate room having a smoke and he’d just freak on me. So it was Game 4 at home, we were up two games to one, but we were down 4-1. And Mike came in the room, and he goes, ‘You’re in.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ It was the third period, we were down 4-1…4-2…4-3, we scored late to make it 4-4. I made a save in the dying seconds, and went in the dressing room. It was 4-4, we came out and I think they might have rattled one off the post early on me, and then Murray Craven I believe scored the goal. I went down the other end, and we were all excited being up three games to one. I get in the dressing room and sat down, and I started to shake. That’s when it started to hit me. I looked at my hands and they were shaking, and Mike came in and he was so freaking happy and he goes, ‘Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.’ (Laughs). I had a smoke right in the room, I didn’t even have to go into the skate room, it was awesome. But that’s the way Mike was. If you’re winning, man you’re golden. Soon as you start losing, oh boy.”
5FW: I grew up as a Rangers fan, so I’ve certainly heard some stories about what it was like to play for him…did he have the “Iron Mike” borderline a-hole persona even at that time?
Laforest: “Oh my God, I think he was at the peak. Some guys were pissed at him, there were guys that just didn’t like him. He played mind games with you. He was incredible. He’d yell at somebody, then he’d slam the door and then he’d open it up…he was all over Scott Mellanby the one day, oh my goodness. He was horrible, but that was the way Mike was. He ended up getting fired because we got beat out in the first round against the Caps.”
5FW: He didn’t end up staying in one place for too long, did he?
Laforest: “No. He got four years in Philly, and of course I thought I should have played in Philly, that playoffs. I ended up playing again when Ron got pulled in the second period of Game 5. It was 4-1, and we got beat 5-2, I think. I gave up one, so I thought I’d play Game 6, I didn’t. I thought I’d play Game 7, I didn’t. I was pissed. But that’s what you want to be. The backup goalie wants to play, you don’t want to sit there. I did not want to sit there, I wanted to play. It didn’t work out that way. But we had Ron Hextall. Conn Smythe trophy. Oh my God, he was a heck of a goalie. Oh my goodness, he was good. I’d love watching him play because he was intense. The next season, we went to the semis and I didn’t get to play in the playoffs and sat on the bench. Then the writing was on the wall when they got Ken Wregget for two first rounders. I remember Kenny, he was staying at the hotel, and I would pick him up every day. And he goes, ‘Trees, you’re incredible.’ And I go, ‘Why’s that?’ And he goes, ‘Here I am, taking your job and every day, you pick me up from practice on time.’ (Laughs) I get along with a lot of people, I don’t have problems with getting along with people. And he was part of our team and I was going to make him feel welcome even though I knew he was taking my job. But I got an opportunity with Toronto after that.”
5FW: So let’s talk about that. You got to go to another Original Six team…and they had, was it Allan Bester and Jeff Reese at the time?
Laforest: “They had Bester and Reese and Peter Ing was just coming out of college. I think he was holding out for more money.”
5FW: Oh wow, Peter Ing! I remember him…and wait…Peter Ing was holding out for more money? Oh my goodness.
Laforest: “(Laughs) I don’t know for sure, but they were having trouble signing him. So that’s when I got traded there, and of course being in season like every year, I got sent down. Jeff and Allan struggled a little bit, and I came up and we turned it around and starting playing well, but then I got hurt. And I missed 5-6 weeks almost, and when I came back I played really well, but I couldn’t get a win. We’d lose 2-1, 3-2. I just couldn’t win the last three or four starts I had, so when it came down to the playoffs, I didn’t start and we went out in six games I think to St. Louis. And that was pretty much near the end of it. Then I got traded to New York. Neil Smith, my GM in Adirondack when we won the Calder Cup, traded for me. And I go, ‘Neil, what the heck?’ That wasn’t the word I used. But you’ve got Vanbiesbrouck and Richter, what the heck are you doing to me? (Laughs). I said, ‘You’re killing me.’ And he goes, ‘We need insurance, you’re insurance. I’ll take care of you, don’t worry about it. You’ll go down to Binghamton. We have a new team, and we’re going to make them good.’ And that was that. Barring injury, I wouldn’t play in New York, or (there would be a) trade and I would. But it never materialized until John went to either Philly or Florida.”
5FW: So it was in Toronto where you got hurt from slipping on ice…
Laforest: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…”
5FW: We’ll leave it at that, then. So ultimately, you didn’t end up getting back to the NHL until the 1993-94 season with Ottawa. How difficult was that to have to ride it out in the minors for that long not knowing if you’d get another chance?
Laforest: “Oh heck yeah. I can’t remember…I won the best American League goalie again for the second time in Binghamton with the Rangers, and then I got drafted (in the expansion draft) by Ottawa. Their general manager, I was near the termination date to sign a contract, and I never got a contract to sign to have a year left. So they said I was a free agent. They traded for another goalie, and I didn’t get to go to camp and it was a mess. I ended up playing in the United League trying to stay in shape, and then finally the coach down in New Haven, where Ottawa’s farm team was, they were getting killed every night. And it was, ‘Well, how come Trees isn’t here?’ They finally settled on giving me lots of money to play in the minors, because I was going to sue them. I was pissed. I had lawyers going. I ended up getting a fair shake and playing in the minors, and the next season is when I got called up and ended up going up to Ottawa. I’d been out of the league for four years. We played nine games on the road, they were all road games, and I saw old teammates in warmups. I saw Adam Oates in Boston, and he couldn’t believe I was still alive. (Laughs).
‘I played hard. I drank too much, all that stuff. Just hanging around with different people, and it wore me down. But now I’ve been sober 14 years and life is good.”
5FW: Well that’s certainly something to be proud of. A lot of people aren’t so lucky…
Laforest: “It was so hard when the career was over. To all of a sudden go from being a part of an organization and a hockey team where you’re with a bonded bunch of guys, and now you’re alone. There was alcoholism. At the time, it was depression. It was everything, and oh was it hard. But I was fortunate to run into some of the right people at the right time, and I got myself some help and I’ve been on that path for 14 years now.”
5FW: You’ve certainly read a lot of the stories about the enforcers in the game running into tough times when it comes to situations like that over the past few years. Is it more of a widespread issue in hockey than just that group?
Laforest: “Than just that group? I would say probably. We know that one out of every four or five Americans go through bouts of depression. You’ve got 20 guys on the team, so that means that three or four — at some point, whether it be as teenagers or adults or post-career — are going to have that kind of problem. It’s bound to happen, it can’t not happen to a group of 20, I don’t care how strong you are mentally. There’s things that just happen. I believe that it’s huge in the real world, and I think it’s a prevalent in pro sports. We get shocked when it happens to the extreme; when guys don’t get help, like football players and hockey players and baseball players. It happens every year when someone takes their own life. We get shocked because they were superstars and all that, but we’re normal human beings, we just have a talent. Whether it’s throwing a football or a baseball or playing hockey. It’s bound to occur in a dressing room. I’ve learned a lot about that kind of stuff in the past 14 years, and it’s just got to be there, it’s just not talked about. It’s just not talked about in the real world.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com