Since 1917, more than 1,000 men have worn the Blue and White in Toronto’s NHL history, part of a team that millions of Canadians grew up listening to, watching on TV or even seeing live, perhaps dreaming they could play for them one day.
Each has his own story, whether just one game or 20-plus seasons. Some won multiple Stanley Cups, others are part of the current 53-year drought. The Sun is profiling select Leafs and their experience in Toronto, looking at the colourful career of Mark Laforest.
Mention Mark Laforest to older Toronto fans and their recollection won’t likely be his mask, his number, a 10-bell glove save or smashing his stick after a loss.
The netminder known as ‘Trees’ applied his stamp as a Leaf with no equipment on, or even his sweater, as he headlined one of the best goalie fights ever, on Oct. 23, 1989 at the Gardens.
A line brawl had started in a game against the Devils at New Jersey’s end of the ice. Laforest was being taunted by rival Sean Burke as other scraps dragged on. Finally, Laforest decided to come on down and accept the challenge.
“From far away at my side of the rink, Burke didn’t look that big,” Laforest laughed. “Then when I got closer … ‘uh oh’.”
Burke had six inches and 30 pounds on the 5-foot-10 Laforest and unknown to the latter, lots more boxing experience. Laforest held his own as Burke used his superior reach to land some shots as a few combatants on both teams stopped to watch. When their jabs abated and they’d turned to jawing, Laforest made another mistake.
“I tried to get one last punch in, thinking the ref was still around and he’d come back and break it up,” he said. “But he’d turned and skated away.”
Round 2 also went to Burke.
“At that point, I wanted to get thrown out of the game anyway,” Laforest said. “We’re down 5-2, it was my first home start and I figured people would at least remember me for something good. I was exhausted and had to have a cigarette later in the dressing room. Over the years, I began to think I’d done okay against Burke, but then they invented YouTube and everyone could see I didn’t.”
Acquired just before training camp from the Flyers, Laforest was one of four goalies in the 1989-90 season with Allan Bester, Jeff Reese and Peter Ing. From his crease, he watched the most explosive offence in a single Leafs season — 337 goals — a number not reached since.
“It was fabulous to see us in transition,” Laforest said. “That was the year Gary Leeman scored 51 and it was a pleasure to see the French kids (Vincent Damphousse, Daniel Marois, Gilles Thibaudeau), Wendel (Clark) and Eddie O (Olczyk).
But the defence, in transition during its first year without Borje Salming, had some holes. Laforest’s .886 save percentage actually wound up being the best of the four netminders.
His record didn’t include a 7-4 New Year’s Eve loss to Moscow Dynamo. With Harold Ballard away with medical issues, the Leafs finally played one of the touring Russian teams that the crusty owner had so staunchly opposed. Toronto dressed a ‘B’ lineup.
Laforest was on the move at season’s end in a trade with the Rangers, joining Tie Domi before the latter matured into a fighter/scorer in his second tour in Toronto.
“I loved my time with the Leafs,” Laforest said. “I’d watched Hockey Night In Canada every Saturday, even though I was a Chicago fan as a kid (and Tony Esposito in particular). Every game at the Gardens, my dad or mom or someone from the family was there.”
Counting his junior years in Niagara Falls and North Bay, and his final NHL stop with the Ottawa Senators, Laforest wore 17 different club sweaters in 15 seasons.
“A lot of goalies were doing the butterfly and going down, but I was so small, I had to stand up,” Laforest said. “When I retired, it was going to be (final). My kids, Greg, Kara and Nick, are doing well. I have five grandkids (the most recent arriving this week).”
He has coached some local junior B hockey in Welland, was assistant coach at Brock University for a year, but didn’t quite hang up his pads. He made five trips with Leafs and NHL alumni to visit Canadian Forces in the Middle East and Europe, playing in many ball hockey games.
“The most gratifying experience I’ve had outside of the NHL,” he assured. “I learned so much about what our troops do.”
An avid angler, he took up serious fly-fishing four years ago at the urging of one of his sons. He’s proud of mastering a 13-foot spey rod, that landed a 42-inch, 25-pound Atlantic salmon on the York River in the Gaspe Peninsula. He’s also fished the Miramachi River in New Brunswick and the Salmon River in upper New York State for steelhead. While there, he met young French Canadians Guillaume, Jeffrey and Andrew who’ve invited him on some intense fishing trips to the Gaspe, including being a three-week stint living in a tent.
FAVOURITE LEAFS MEMORY
Laforest joked that when he came to Toronto “everyone I knew back to Grade 3 wanted Leafs tickets”.
That was true even when he was with the Red Wings, as backup in the 1987 playoff series against Toronto. Living in Windsor at the time, Laforest’s wife was pregnant and unable to attend a game at Joe Louis Arena. So Laforest gave her tickets to two Welland pals who were attending the University of Windsor.
“I went to their dorm to pick them up. One has full blue face-paint and a white Leaf in the middle, the other white paint and a blue Leaf. I’m horrified.
“I started getting hassled at the border because the guards were Detroit fans who knew me. I got to the Wings’ parking lot and thankfully it was empty. But suddenly Steve Yzerman pulls in, then Lee Norwood and other guys. They’re crying with laughter, but then I still had to take these two goofs through our private security gate to get their tickets.”