Bruce Hoffort never considered himself your typical “blue chip prospect” during his collegiate and professional hockey careers. How he feels in retrospect about his goaltending and his playing career goes back even to his days as a youth. “I really didn’t watch much hockey. I really wasn’t a ‘rink rat’, so to speak. I spent more time on my snowmobile”. And as I spend my afternoon chatting with Bruce Hoffort for an hour or so, I do notice that he is correct. Bruce is not your typical person or typical hockey player. Bruce realized that there was something different that had made him an NCAA Championship winning goaltender, and an aspiring talent for the Philadelphia Flyers. And the more that I listen to him recollect his playing career, it makes me wish that there were more people and more professional athletes like Bruce Hoffort in this world today.
Bruce Hoffort was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada but after a little bit of moving around, spent his time growing up in North Battleford, another Saskatchewan city, beginning around the age of 4-years old. There are numerous hockey talents to have come out of North Battleford, including NHL talents of the 1970s and 1980s like Skip Krake, Dale Hoganson, Ron Delorme, Bernie Lukowich, and even legendary Hockey Hall of Fame inducted coach, Emile “The Cat” Francis. Hoffort recalled that “these were the names you heard growing up in North Battleford, and that you kind of looked up to”.
Unbeknownst at the time as to how his career would eventually play out, as a kid Hoffort would cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers and idolized their legendary goaltender, Bernie Parent. “When I was a kid and was playing really strong, my teammates and friends took to calling me ‘Bernie’ even. The only time that I ever received something back when I wrote to a hockey club (fan mail) was from the Flyers. They sent me a team photo probably from around the early to mid-1970s, and there was Bernie Parent in the photo too, and I believe the Stanley Cup was depicted as well. And I used to look at that photo endlessly”. In addition to the Flyers and Parent, Hoffort fondly recalls watching Hockey Night in Canada after Bingo, and watching the stellar goaltending of Ken Dryden, Mike Palmateer, and Richard Brodeur. Once the region started carrying more Edmonton Oilers games on television in the 1980s, Hoffort strongly admired the brilliance of the Oilers’ superb goaltending tandem of Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.
While he had played goal a bit here and there in street hockey and recreationally at school, Bruce Hoffort had been a positional player as a defenseman in organized youth hockey. But around the time that he was playing in pee wee or travel leagues, about the age of 12 or so, he decided to give goaltending a try. “It was much easier than what parents have to do these days as far as handling equipment costs. Basically in North Battleford they had a big room filled with all sizes of goalie equipment. You picked out whatever fit you, and that was your goalie equipment that you played in”. From that point going forward, Hoffort was permanently a goaltender in organized hockey.
Heading into his teenage years, Bruce Hoffort would play his junior hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, initially for North Battleford. But after not seeing much playing time in the nets, Hoffort would request a trade which saw him be shipped to the Melville Millionaires. The 1985-86 season, at 19-years of age, saw Hoffort appear in 40-games for the Millionaires, and string together a streak 15-18-2 record while pitching 2-shutouts. Hoffort’s junior career would include stops in Nipawin at the junior-B level and returns to North Battleford as well. Around this time, the Regina Pats had approached Bruce about adding him onto a protected list with the intent of signing him. Hoffort received advice around that time from friends, cautioning him that accepting the addition to Regina’s protected list would negate his ability to play collegiate hockey. It would come down to deciding what was the best road for Bruce to follow; college hockey or major junior hockey.
The decision would soon be made much easier for Bruce, as assistant coach of Lake Superior State University, Jeff Jackson, would begin scouting him quite seriously, and in turn would offer him a scholarship to play stateside with the Lakers. Jackson, who presently is the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey program since 2005, would recognize the “battler” in Bruce. It was Jackson who would refer to Hoffort as a “junkyard dog”, often having to fight for the most out of difficult situations. The decision to attend school and play hockey at Lake Superior would pave the way for Bruce to play some of his best hockey, achieve great personal and team accolades, and eventually the opening of a door into the NHL.
Bruce Hoffort and the Lakers found immediate success in their first year together, the 1987-88 season. “Half of our team were freshmen, and it was a very talented team. By far, Mark Vermette was our best player. He scored 45-goals in 46-games. Vermette was very tough too. Scoring 45-goals on top of having over 150-penalty minutes”. Mark Vermette would eventually be drafted in the 7th-round of the 1986 entry draft by Quebec, and would suit up in 67-games for the Nordiques across four seasons. “Drew Famulak was my roommate”, Hoffort went onto say. “My best friend on the team was Doug Laprade out of Thunder Bay. Mike Greenlay was our backup goalie, and he’d end up playing a few games with the Edmonton Oilers”. Besides Hoffort, Vermette and Greenlay, four other Lakers would also go onto the NHL, including Dan Keczmer, Mark Astley, Rene Chapdelaine and future Stanley Cup champion Jim Dowd.
Hoffort would backstop the Lakers to a most memorable championship run which would see Lake Superior State defeat St. Lawrence 4-3 in overtime of the championship game, which was held in Lake Placid that April. The earlier rounds of the tournament saw the Lakers defeat Merrimack in a two-game, total goals format quarterfinal with a 4-3 loss and a 5-0 victory, as well as defeating the Maine Blackbears 6-3 in a single elimination game semi-final. “The program had never previously won anything significant. So it was great for that program and that community. And getting to play at Lake Placid was amazing, of course. After we won the tournament, we were the first hockey team since the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team that was invited to the White House. We got to meet Ronald Reagan and take individual photos with him. You would be in a separate room, and the Secret Service would wave you in, and you’d be like, ‘wow, there’s Ronald Reagan!’. It was a truly amazing experience”.
Hoffort’s performance at the tournament and for the entire 1987-88 NCAA was simply spectacular. So much so that Bruce would receive the accolades of being named to the All-CCHA First Team, as well as the All-NCAA Tournament Team to go along with being awarded the Most Outstanding Player for the entire 1988 NCAA Tournament. Few players have been more celebrated with accolades than what Hoffort was that memorable 1988 season.
After the freshman year championship run, Bruce Hoffort’s sophomore year was even more remarkable statistically. Throughout 44-games in the 1988-89 season, Hoffort finished with a record of 27-wins and only 10-losses to go with 5-ties and a strong 2.71 goals against average. It was around this time that the thought of playing professional hockey really started to take shape for Bruce. “After my freshman year, I actually had an offer from the Quebec Nordiques to see if I was interested in turning pro. I began to think to myself, ‘Wow! Maybe I can play professionally. Maybe I can do something here’. I wanted to have a great second year and see if I could continue to go up”. After actually having and playing that very solid second year, things did in fact continue to go up for Bruce.
“A friend of Jeff Jackson’s was Bob Goodenow, who at the time, was working as a player agent and had a couple of players like Brett Hull. We had an informal meeting in Sault Ste. Marie, where Goodenow asked me if I wanted to go professional. It was at this meeting that I realized that I did. Bob started soliciting offers, and there were at least 10 teams that were interested”.
Eventually for Bruce, the choice of where he would sign professionally would come down to choosing between two teams; the Edmonton Oilers and the team of his childhood dreams, the Philadelphia Flyers. For Bruce, it was never about the money. Some hockey players are more concerned about playing where they are going to get the biggest salary and living the good life. That was never the case for Hoffort; he simply wanted to play in the NHL. “Glen Sather, whom I had met with just prior in Lloydminster, called me up one night and told me that he’d give me $50,000 less than whatever the Flyers offered me”. Listening to Bruce tell me this, I am banking on the fact that Sather thought the enticement would be more so the fact that the Oilers were perennial Stanley Cup champions, and still had the likes of Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Kevin Lowe on their roster. “What ended up being more important to me was being a bit further away from home, and not so much being under the microscope anymore. Plus, there was the tie of idolizing Bernie Parent, and that he was serving as a goalie coach in Philadelphia at the time”. It became no surprise then that Hoffort chose to sign with the Flyers.
Bruce Hoffort’s first professional hockey season was 1989-90. All appearances would be that Bruce would have a legitimate shot of making the Flyers roster right out of training camp that summer. “I had had a very good training camp. (Ron) Hextall was out at the time with a contract dispute. I had seen a lot of playing time in the pre-season. John Paddock (the assistant GM for the Philadelphia Flyers at the time) told me that he believed I would be there”, Hoffort recalled. Though he would not make the Flyers roster right off the bat, it really would not take Bruce that long to see his first taste of NHL play. “I think after only 6-games in Hershey, I got called up”. Hoffort would sit backup to Vezina-trophy winning and multiple All-Star selection Pete Peeters, while Hextall remained out with the contract dispute and the other veteran netminder, Ken Wregget, was out with an injury.
Over a quarter of a century later, I am amazed at how well Bruce is able to recall his first NHL game. Not even just down to the details of the game, but remembering the feelings and emotions that he felt at the time too. Hoffort’s first NHL game would be a November 5th, 1989 showdown against the New York Islanders in Philadelphia for a game that he was not even expected to play in. “Early in the 2nd-period, there was a goal mouth collision. Pete Peeters had gotten hurt, and looked as if he had hit his head the ice. Immediately as he was being attended to, I hopped over the boards and started stretching, getting ready to go in”. Hoffort was raring to go, and who could blame him? This was his chance. This was his opportunity. Suiting up in an NHL game and being able to show what he could do.
In asking him what memories stand out the most from this first NHL game, Bruce recalls a very unique, quirky situation about playing that first game at The Spectrum. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘if they don’t score, they can’t send me down’. I had played with Pat Jablonski’s twin brother, Jeff, at Lake Superior State. Pat was a goalie at the time for the St. Louis Blues, and Jeff had told me a story about him. Pat had played a game in Philly, where the shooter faked him out and pretended that he was going to dump the puck in. Anticipating the dump in, Pat left the crease too early to play the puck and the shooter just put the puck right into the open net. Remembering this, I wanted to make certain this didn’t happen to me. Wouldn’t you know it, the first play of the game for me, (the Islanders’) Gerald Diduck is skating in and looks like he’s ready to dump the puck in, then suddenly slaps it hard right on net! Diduck was figuring ‘here’s this rookie goalie, I’m going to mess with him’. I stopped it obviously, and survived getting embarrassed”. Bruce and I had a good laugh over this recollection of his first game.
Despite having been replaced by him after getting injured, Pete Peeters was very welcoming to the young Hoffort and was very instrumental in helping to develop him in his early career. Peeters made sure to spend time with Bruce, and show him a few veteran tricks of the trade, so to speak. “Pete was great right off the bat. He was engaging with everyone, and was involved on the ice. Pete wanted to know my opinion about things, and how I had been taught. Throughout his career, Pete Peeters was known as a great puckhandler. He taught me a few things about shaving my stick down, so that it was easier to hold for flipping the puck out”.
Despite posting a superb 3-0-1 record in just his first few games in the league, Hoffort was understandably dismayed when he was sent back down to Hershey once veteran Ken Wregget came back from injury. “Paul Holmgren had kept telling me, ‘ you keep winning, you keep playing'”. Despite being sent down, Hoffort would eventually be called back up later in the season and appeared in a string of three games in late-March, early-April. But things would not remain the same as they had been for his earlier success, and Hoffort would show signs of struggle.
Glenn “Chico” Resch had replaced Bernie Parent as goaltending coach for the Flyers, and would have a different approach to his goaltenders than what Parent exemplified. “Bernie Parent was a standup goaltender, and I was a standup goaltender, so it worked really well. Chico wanted me to adopt a butterfly style. But what he wanted me to do was to gradually develop into a butterfly style goalie, whereas I tried to do it immediately and replicate it right off the bat; that’s not what Chico had meant for me to do. I ended up getting into a slump”.
Unfortunately, Bruce’s slump would continue into his second professional season, and it would be a tumultuous one at best. Despite being with the Flyers for two months during the 1990-91 season, Hoffort played in only two games, and of those two games combined, played a mere total of 39-minutes of ice time. On paper, Hoffort registered a decent 1-0-1 record for those two games, but his other numbers were quite rough, having come away with .850 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average. Not the kind of numbers that could keep you in the NHL, but when he only logged 39-minutes of play over two months, Hoffort had not been given a fair shake. Even in Hershey with the Bears, Hoffort saw the bulk of the netminding duties being given to 20-year old rookie Dominic Roussel and veteran Marc D’Amour as Roussel’s backup. Not finding a solidified position in Hershey either and with no real opportunity in Philly, Hoffort would even be shuffled over to the IHL’s Kansas City Blades so that he could be utilized somewhere. Being in Kansas City would be not be all bad, as Hoffort would be able to learn firsthand from head coach, former NHL goaltender and Stanley Cup winner Doug Soetaert, as well as co-coach and four-time Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Ken Morrow.
Never quite finding his groove, Bruce Hoffort would bounce between three teams in three different leagues for the rest of the season. In fact, one weekend during the 1990-91 season saw Hoffort play a game with the Blades in Indianapolis on a Friday night, having to play in Portland on a Saturday with Hershey, and then serving as a backup to Ken Wregget on the Sunday for a game in Pittsburgh. It would not surprise me if Bruce Hoffort was the only player in hockey history to have suited up in three different professional leagues, for three different teams, all in three consecutive days. It was no wonder that Hoffort never was able to get into a rhythm that season.
Bruce Hoffort’s final professional season would be the 1991-92 season with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. The Flyers organization basically told him, “hey, we are going to leave you alone in San Diego and give you a chance to find your game again. We won’t bounce you around like last year. You can be the top goalie in San Diego, and have the opportunity to get your game back”. Longtime NHL and minor league player, Tim Tookey, who had been a teammate of Bruce’s in Hershey warned his friend that it likely would not be so simple in San Diego. “Tim Tookey knew Rick Knickle (the other goalie in San Diego) from their days with the Los Angeles Kings, and knew that Knickle was a really good goalie. He knew that I would not simply get the job”.
Don Waddell, who was head coach at the time for the Gulls, made a familiar assurance to Hoffort that “if you win, you play”. Starting to find his former self again and the former ways that worked for him at Lake Superior State and in the first part of his season in Philadelphia, Bruce Hoffort knew that he had to fight for his position again and rekindle that “junkyard dog” mentality that Jeff Jackson had originally seen in him. And while Hoffort would indeed scrap wholeheartedly to get in for 26-games for the Gulls and go 11-9-4 in that stretch, a very scary injury would perhaps signify that his professional career was coming closer to an end. “Shortly before Sean Burke was brought in, I had a really nasty collision on the ice. They had to take me in an ambulance to the hospital, and I ended up having a really bad concussion. By the time I got back, Sean Burke was in goal, and that was it”. Sean Burke, a stellar goaltender in his own right and an NHL goaltender for many years afterward, would quickly assume the starting duties for the Gulls.
Hoffort did have an opportunity to play professional hockey one more season in 1992-93 with the Gulls once more. Hoffort had been bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers and was a free agent to play wherever he wanted. The thought at the time was, “hey, why not San Diego again. Take a chance to do some soul-searching”. The trouble being that former Buffalo Sabres player and head coach, Rick Dudley, had taken over the head coaching duties, and had decided to bring in an entire selection of former Sabres players, including Lindy Ruff, Scott Arniel, Bill Houlder, Dale DeGray, Don McSween, Tony McKegney, Mark Ferner, and goaltender Clint Malarchuk. Once Malarchuk arrived, the proverbial writing was on the wall for Hoffort. “I showed up one morning, and there were my equipment bags all packed and outside the locker room. I was like, ‘uh oh’. I went to Don Waddell’s office (Waddell had become President and General Manager of the Gulls by that point) and told me he could offer me an opportunity in the ECHL. Not wanting to go that low in the professional leagues, I decided to say ‘that’s it'”.
Having left the game and officially retired, Bruce Hoffort returned to Lake Superior State University as a volunteer goaltending coach. “It was great. I got to be there in 1994 with Blaine Lacher (who would go on to play for the Boston Bruins) and John Grahame who would win a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay”.
These days Bruce is no longer in hockey, but works as a successful businessman in the pulp and paper business overseeing paper conversion.
I mentioned at the beginning that I view Bruce Hoffort as being the kind of individual that we need more of in this world, and whom I wish other professional athletes were like. Throughout his story, Bruce was a “junkyard dog” type player, as bestowed upon him in college by Jeff Jackson. Thinking back on his career, Bruce recalls that he “always had to work very hard. Fighting for scraps like a junkyard dog. During those difficult seasons, I lost sight of where I came from. What made me a talented player was that I was always fighting, scraping, clawing to make the most out of difficult situations. You have to fight for things in life; nothing is just handed to you on a silver platter. In the NHL, you are kind of on your own in a sense. Now, in the business world, with a wife and kids in college, you have to fight for success. Nothing comes easy, and you have to continue to fight through challenges and battles”.
Bruce Hoffort gets what it seems that less and less people are getting these days. In a day in age where so much of life is about entitlement, Bruce understand that if you want something out of life, you have to work hard for it. Maybe he gets it because he lived it as a professional hockey player. Maybe it is what helped lead to him an NCAA Championship and to be able to play in the National Hockey League. It is comforting to know that there are people like Bruce Hoffort that still recognize these types of values; the types of values that you would want to pass onto the youth of today and the young professional athletes of today. I have the utmost respect for Bruce Hoffort, and I know that these ideals that he exudes and holds dear are what have made him so successful and respectable to this day.