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Mark Lofthouse

Checking In With Mark Lofthouse

October 20, 2021

by John Sparenberg, HersheyBears.com
October 2021 Feature

It's been over 30 years since former Bear Mark Lofthouse last laced up his skates in a professional hockey game, so, unless you are on the north side of 50, you may not have been fortunate enough to have watched him play. But if you did, you saw a player who ultimately developed into a dominant force in the American Hockey League, where he averaged better than a point per game in his 500-plus game career, but never saw his NHL promise fully realized.

Playing his junior hockey in the Western Canada Hockey league for the New Westminster Bruins, Lofthouse put up some mighty impressive offensive numbers. Throughout his three seasons with the Bruins, the New Westminster native averaged nearly a point and a half per game and also set the club record for goals in a season (68).

Then, came the summer of 1977, and the NHL Entry Draft. It was around this time that the first ominous signs of the business side of hockey, where friendships take a back seat, at least during games, and budgets sometimes supersede sensibility, reared its ugly head, foreshadowing the struggles that would lie ahead in Lofthouse's quest to become an NHL mainstay.

"The Bruins were one of the top teams in Canada, and I was coming off a very successful year (54g, 58a, in 70 outings) where we won the Memorial Cup", said Lofthouse, who was selected with the 21st pick in the draft. "I think I was rated like 8th in the draft and had been told by the New York Islanders' Western Canada scout that they'd take me if I was still available when they drafted (15th pick), but they didn't take me. Instead, they took Mike Bossy (who went on to capture four Stanley Cups with the Islanders), so, I think they did pretty well."

Lofthouse joined a Capitals organization that had been in a near-constant state of turmoil since entering the NHL, as evidenced by the following in their first three seasons of play; four head coaches, two General Managers, and a yearly average of 37 players who took the ice in at least one game.

"My years in Washington were very difficult. I didn't think much about it when I got drafted, but it was an old boys club. I think the average age of the club when I went there as a 19-20-year-old, was over 30. So, there were a lot of guys that weren't happy seeing me coming in because obviously, I was probably going to take a job from an older fella. It was a different era in hockey back then you know, you had to be prepared for anything (on and off the ice), and Tommy McVie was the coach then, and he was a hard-nosed fella.

"We didn't win many games my first year there. I was a skilled player, but I was always on the fourth line up there. Nowadays, if you're a skilled player and you get called up to the Washington Capitals from the Hershey Bears and Ovechkin is hurt, you're probably going to get that opportunity to play on that line to fill that void. Can he fill that void? I mean how can you fill a void of Ovechkin, that's not an easy step."

Lofthouse concluded, "It's a different setup now, back then coaches were kind of handcuffed with the contracts and so were the organizations. Today, these young kids come in and they are given a chance right off the bat. I think organizations actually want the guys to make the team these days because it bodes well for the future of their clubs."

After spending four years in the Capitals' system, split almost evenly between Hershey (134 games) and Washington (141 games), Lofthouse's time with the organization came to an end in the summer of 1981 when he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings.

Understandably, Lofthouse was stung by the trade for a couple of reasons, among them; he had put up decent numbers in his tenure as a fourth liner with the Caps (31g, 30a), he was coming off a spectacular season with Hershey, and his former coach in Hershey was now behind the Caps bench in the same capacity.

"I had just led the (AHL) league in scoring (103 points in 74 games, an accomplishment made even more impressive considering he also served 131 penalty minutes that campaign), and Washington was still a struggling organization. I was frustrated with my opportunities up there, to be honest with you. It was an old-school kind of program back in those days, especially if you didn't have the right contract, and me, I didn't have a good contract. I'm not bitter about it at all but back then if you weren't on a one-way, you'd be minors, it didn't matter if you played well enough. Nowadays, if you're good enough you're going to make it and you're going to play."

"But the toughest part for me was that we won the league (in points but lost in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual Calder Cup claimants, the Adirondack Red Wings), and Bryan Murray, was now the coach in Washington. I was his go-to guy in Hershey the year I won the scoring title, and he brought up a lot of guys like my winger, Lou Franceschetti, and I would have loved that opportunity up there with Bryan because I know he would have certainly put me into some key roles that maybe I would have flourished in and had a better result."

A friend one day and a foe the next, that's another example of the business side of the game, and Archie Henderson, a legendary and towering (6'6) forward who terrorized the AHL for years, including a few with the Bears, falls into that category for Lofthouse.

"Archie and I actually lived together in Hershey, and we became good friends. He was one of the funniest guys you'd ever meet, tough, and a great guy to have on your team. But he had a thing about going after his friends when he played against them and unfortunately, I happened to be one of those guys. I was a goal scorer and I mean he'd do anything to protect me when we played together, but when I was against him, he was always going after me. I wasn't a big fighter, but I think I could hold my own, and we ended fighting four or five times over the years. I remember fighting him three or four times in my first training camp in Washington. I didn't really fight him though, I just hung on. "

Dan Clark, who played in Chocolatetown in the 1981-82 season and was a defenseman by trade is another former foe/teammate who had a rather memorable encounter with Lofthouse when he lined up for a game opening faceoff opposite the New Westminster, British Columbia native, who at the time was an Adirondack Red Wing.

"We laugh about this all of the time, but I'm actually a director at his company and we're best friends and we also played together in New Haven. Gary Inness was the Hershey coach, and Danny's usually a left defenseman, and I go out for the opening facing, and I'm a right-wing. I look over and there he is playing left-wing."

"I said what are you doing, and he said Inch (Inness) sent me out here to get you, and Inness knew we were best of friends. Of course, nothing ever came of it, but we always have a laugh when we talk about it, in fact we were both even laughing about it at the faceoff. You know, you've got to be kidding, how do you punch your best friend in the face?"

In any sport, it's always fun to surmise about how a player would have fared had his career been spent in another era. Obviously being slotted higher in the lineup and being granted quality power-play time would have gone a long way towards flipping the script” on Lofthouse’s NHL career. Also, it’s important to remember that clutching and grabbing as well as other tactics that impeded a players’ progress were prevalent when he played, thus further slowing down players like Lofthouse, who while not being blessed with exceptional speed or skating ability, did possess an exceptional ability to know where he needed to be and where his teammates would ultimately be.

"Mark had a precision right-handed shot on the power play and he took a lot of checks down low to make a play", said Greg Theberge, a teammate in both Hershey and Washington. "Bryan Murray made Mark a better hockey player, just like he did with everyone else, but Lofty had a high hockey intel and really good skill sets with his stick. I truly believe it was only his skating that prohibited him from playing major minutes in the National Hockey League, and like everyone else, he lost a step or two along the way."

Late in the summer of 1987, Lofthouse was signed to a free agent by the Philadelphia Flyers, thus assuring a return to the Bears, who were now the AHL affiliate of the Flyers.
During his time away from Central Pennsylvania he spent time in Adirondack, skating in the Detroit Red Wings' organization, and New Haven, plying his trade in the Los Angeles Kings' organization. While with New Haven, he added another 100-point campaign to his resume', but in that high-scoring era, his 101 points were only good for 7th place in the scoring race. Ironically, Adirondack and New Haven were the two teams that provided the opposition Lofthouse, and his Hershey teammates faced in his final foray into the post-season on his first run in Hershey.

At this point in his career, with ten tough years of professional hockey under his belt, there were a lot of miles on Lofthouse's odometer, but that didn't mean there wasn't plenty of fuel left in his tank, as he played a pivotal role in the Bears' 12-0 run to the 1988 Calder Cup title.

"That was an insane run, said Lofthouse, who netted 21-goals in the regular season to help his club gain the post-season entry. "We had such a great group of guys, and a very balanced team. I played on the third line with Donnie Nachbaur as my centerman and Kevin Maxwell on the other wing. I was just so thrilled to be on that team. I felt I played a role and put up some reasonable numbers on that club. Then we had guys like Nick Kypreos, and Mike Stothers, and some other big guys, and Kevin McCarthy was the quarterback on the powerplay. Wendell Young was so good in the playoffs, he was the MVP of the playoffs and he put on a show."

Lofthouse, who dished out five assists in the playoffs including one of Kevin Maxwell's overtime snipe in game one and added six strikes of his own in the post-season, including the overtime winner in game three and the series clincher in game four of the same series continued, "The last time I had won a championship before that was in junior with New Westminster, 10-11 years earlier. I had some individual accolades of the course of my career, but winning the championship, there is nothing that could ever replace that accomplishment."

Lofthouse laced the skates up for one more very productive season with the Bears, garnering 79 points (32g, 47a) in 74-games, but his hopes for back-to-back titles to finish out his career were buried by the eventual champs, the Adirondack Red Wings, who eliminated the Bears in a grueling seven-game series that ended in Glens Falls on an overtime goal by Adam Graves.

"I was going to play another year, but I had gone back to school for real estate and going back to school was the best thing I ever did. I got into real estate, and I've been doing it for 33-years now out here in the Vancouver area. I had a great career, and I enjoyed all of the years that I played, especially in Hershey, where I played my first game and my last game, twelve years apart,” said Lofthouse, who finished his AHL career with 606 points (281g, 325a) in 575 games.

While his career may not have ended in storybook fashion with another championship and a ride off into the Vancouver sunset holding the Calder Cup, it did have many twists and turns and up and downs like an action-adventure thriller rolled into a single cinematic classic.

But Lofthouse's legacy in the game of hockey far outlived his time on the ice. According to Theberge, he was super organized and an excellent role model for the young professionals that were fortunate enough to call him a teammate, which does make a true Hollywood ending for Lofthouse, who according to Theberge was always so well dressed and meticulously groomed during his playing days that he earned the nickname, “Hollywood”.
 

Hershey Bears in a victory embrace

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