Through the help of Dylan Wade of the NHL Alumni Association, The Trentonian and the 5 For Writing blog has been granted access to the wide array of players available through that fantastic organization. Recently, I had the privilege of spending nearly an hour on the phone with former Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators goaltender Mark Laforest.
Laforest, known to most simply as “Trees,” is a two-time winner of the “Baz” Bastien Award as the best goaltender at the AHL level, and won a Calder Cup in Adirondack in 1986. He played in 103 NHL games over the course of six seasons, most notably picking up a playoff win for the Flyers in 1988.
Our first NHL Alumni Association starts with asking Laforest just how he picked up his nickname, but delves into quite a few different topics as it unfolds…without further ado, 5 For Writing presents our interview with Mark Laforest.
Mike Ashmore, 5 For Writing: So, I guess the most logical way to begin this would be to ask about your nickname, “Trees.” Laforest…forest…trees, I get it. But who stuck that one on you?
Mark Laforest: “That was in 1983 training camp with the Adirondack Red Wings, Randy Ladouceur. I told him I didn’t like it.”
5FW: I guess that’s why it stuck…
Laforest: “That’s when he gave printouts to the whole room that the new guy is “Trees.” And now my kids use it when they can’t get my attention. My parents are the same way.”
5FW: Working your way through all the leagues you did — IHL, AHL, ACHL — and all that to get to the NHL like you did, did that make it all the more worthwhile that nothing was really handed to you to get to that top level?
Laforest: “Oh, yeah. It was a hard grind. It was year after year, trying to grab on to the next level, and it was never easy. Thinking you’ll start in the I or in the American League, and then American League training camp is over and they send you to a place you’ve never heard of before. I thought it was a joke. He says, ‘You’re going to Kalamazoo.’ And I was like, ‘Where’s that by, Timbuktu?’ And he goes no, and he pulls out one of those world atlases, and he pointed to it. He had it open underneath his desk, so maybe it had happened before. It was Billy Dineen, he was the coach in Philly as well. He goes, ‘No, Trees, you’re going there.’ All right. So then you work and work, and sometimes you think there’s no hope. And then there’s a glimmer.”
5FW: Did you ever think about hanging it up early?
Laforest: “Yeah. My second year pro, I was in Adirondack and had a baby. My wife was in Adirondack, but I got sent to the Mohawk Valley Stars in Utica of the Atlantic League Coast League. And we took a bus ride in a bus that looked like Slap Shot, and I think I started the brawl. We had a bench (clearing) brawl, I got beat up so bad, my face was just one big pus. And I called my wife, and it was near the end of the second year. I said, ‘That’s it, I’m quitting. I’m not doing this anymore.’ And she said we’d talk about it when I got home, and not to worry about it and all that stuff, the way strong wives are. I got home and we continued. The next season, by December, I was playing in Detroit.”
5FW: So I guess that leads me into that first NHL season…I know the numbers weren’t what you were looking for in 1985-86 with Detroit, but to get to be up there and playing on an Original Six team and in that building, that must have been quite something…
Laforest: “Oh my God, I can’t tell you the thrill of walking into the dressing room at 5 o’clock for a 7 or 7:30 game and seeing your name on the jersey. An original six (jersey) with your name on it, it was just like incredible. I was very fortunate that my hometown was, let’s see, like 200 miles away from Detroit. I called my parents that morning, because I flew in late night, and I called my dad right before the morning skate, and I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And they were kind of confused. They thought I was still in Adirondack, and I said, ‘Listen, I’m starting tonight, are you coming to the game?’ And my dad was like, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m in Detroit.’ So my parents went to work for half a day, and at noon, they booked it to Detroit, which is only a four hour ride. When I stepped on the ice in warmups, they were about five rows up behind the net, waving, all happy and excited. As was I. I waved, but then I put my hand down real fast, because I’ve got to be a pro (laughs). It was pretty cool.”
5FW: Just stretching your arm, right? (laughs)
Laforest: “Yeah, yeah. And it was against the Flyers, too. So imagine that.”
5FW: So take me through what you remember against that first game against Philadelphia…
Laforest: “Oh my God, it was incredible. It was a decent crowd. It wasn’t full, but it was decent. There were maybe 15-16,000, I guess, something like that. And Philly was on top of the league, and we were on the bottom. It was a pretty good game, it was 1-1, and then 2-1, and then I made a save in the third period or the second period, I can’t remember what it was. Maybe it was the third when it was 2-1. And I got a standing O, and couldn’t bend my knees to get in my crouch because they were knocking so bad. I remember the referee, I can’t remember who he was, came over and looked over at me with a grin and he goes, ‘Are you OK?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘OK, I’ll give you a minute, take your time.’ And I went and got a drink of water, had to breathe deeply, you know, let’s get it together. And we went on to win, 4-1. I got first star and was going to set the league on fire.”
5FW: I look at some of the names on that first Red Wings team that you played on; you see Steve Yzerman and you see Adam Oates, and then you see the record of that team, and it doesn’t really seem to piece all together. For lack of a better way of asking, why was that team so bad?
Laforest: “Well, it’s kind of hard to say. We had lots of older guys, Danny Gare was our captain. And he wouldn’t get dressed some nights. It was very dysfunctional, it was just horrible. And I wasn’t very good. I wasn’t ready to go there, but two injuries put me there. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, he’s ready, let’s bring him up.’ It was, ‘OK, he’s up because he’s next.’ And it was a hard year. The next year, we ended up going to the semifinals. But that year was a transitional year. Mr. Ilitch had just bought the team two years prior, Brad Park was their coach and he got fired in the summer time. The next season, Jacques Demers came in and we went to the semis. That was the turnaround of that organization, I think. That was the first year in a long time that they actually did something. It had been like 10-15 years. I think from there, a lot of guys grew as men and as hockey players. That first year, in ’85, I think Stevie was 18 maybe. They were all young, we were all young.”
5FW: Could you tell even back that then kids like Stevie Y and Oates were special when you saw them?
Laforest: “Oh my, yeah. They did stuff on the ice where you’d just go, ‘Wow.’ The quickness of Stevie from side to side, and Oatsies’ passing ability. They used to yell at him to shoot more, because every time he’d shoot, he scored. But he was just one of those guys that just loved to pass, he got a kick out of getting A’s. And then there was getting to watch Probie (Bob Probert) fight. We were roommates for years. Watching him fight and Joey Kocur, it was the start of something. But then I got traded to Philly, so I didn’t get to be around to watch it grow. But it was the start of something new.”
5FW: You did get to be a part of a Calder Cup team in that organization though, and in researching various things to ask you, I’d read that you consider that be such a special moment for you. What was it like for you to win it all at the AHL level?
Laforest: “It was incredible. We were so bad in Detroit that year, that was actually a blessing in disguise. Everybody’s confidence was down, and we were losing every night. It would be 3-2 going to the third, and we’d lose, 6-2. It was stuff like that. Getting sent down to the team we started with at the beginning of the year; Me, Oatsie, Probie, a couple other guys…we were a good team when we left there, and they kept continuing playing well. So showing up and being a part of a first place team, it was incredible. It just changed your whole attitude towards the game, it was fun to be at the rink again. Knowing that the coach, Billy Dineen, said you’re the guy and you’re the one that’s going to play and Detroit was saying that you’ve got to do something, because you weren’t that good here, you’ve got to show us something…there was a lot of pressure. You might think guys in the American League don’t get pressure as much as the NHL, but believe me, most of the pressure you put on either or is pressure you put on yourself. But it was an incredible experience. I was average in the first series, but we played so good. I got my confidence and played great against Moncton, and our team was just fabulous against the Hershey Bears, which was Ronnie Hextall and their squad. It was a great series, we had three or four overtime periods in Game 4, and it was just an amazing experience. To finish and win after a long season, there’s nothing more gratifying. I remember my son when he was 15, we were going to a Leafs game and I was driving, and he goes, ‘What’s your best day in hockey?’ And I said that it was winning the Calder Cup. That was the best thing for me. And he goes, ‘No, no, the NHL.’ And I said that in the NHL, I had a lot of great stops and I had a great time, but winning is the most important thing when you’re a pro. So, winning that Calder Cup was a huge experience. I thought I’d win it every year, one Cup or another. But that was the only one we ever won. It’s very hard, and it’s a grind.”
5FW: I know you were with the Red Wings organization for the season after that, and then you ended up getting dealt to the Flyers. How do you feel like that trade ended up affecting your career at that point?
Laforest: “Well, I thought it was on the way up. I had that year in Detroit when I won the Baz Bastien for best goalie in the minors in ’87, and I just couldn’t crack the lineup. Glen Hanlon was in net, and Greg Stefan, and Jacques Demers liked them. They played well, but I felt like I was being held back, in my opinion. And then, having the opportunity to go to a new team, with Hexy being the number one, you know it was the next step. Like my whole career, grasping for that next step. So the next step would have been to backup somewhere, and I got that opportunity in Philadelphia. For me, it was like any trade, you were disappointed and you’re asking why, but then you realize somebody wants me and it’s a new opportunity. So for me, after getting traded there, it was a great thing for me. I was very, very excited to be a part of the Flyers. They’d just been to the Finals and Game 7, and I thought I could help them.”
In part two of the three-part chat, Laforest and I discuss his time with the Flyers, eventually moving on to the Maple Leafs, and much more…
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com