Late-starting Hoffman now out in front

By Nathan White

By the time he arrived at his third major junior hockey team, Mike Hoffman was 18 years old and had played just 25 games.

That’s not the kind of start that usually sets players up for the NHL draft and major awards, but Hoffman has made the most of the second half of his junior career. Despite a bumpy beginning, now Hoffman seems to do all the right things on the ice, and say the right things off of it.

His quotes are short and focused on his team, the Saint John Sea Dogs, even when he’s asked about personal accomplishments such as winning the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League most valuable player for 2009-10.

“Getting named league MVP, I’m honored by that accomplishment but we’re in playoffs right now. Individual goals or success, you put that aside and only worry about the team and winning right now,” the 20-year-old said after a recent playoff victory. “After the season I might go back and look at that but right now we just want to go as far as we can in the playoffs.”

Hoffman’s Sea Dogs meet the Victoriaville Tigres in the QMJHL semifinal after polishing off the Prince Edward Island Rocket and Gatineau Olympiques. He’s hoping to help the team to its first ever Memorial Cup appearance, an experience he had last season with the Drummondville Voltigeurs and would love to earn again.

At 6’, 175 pounds, Hoffman is not a huge player, but he makes a huge impact. When he has the puck, there’s a sense of calm among his teammates, and panic among his opponents. At times this year, he’s seemed to be toying with the opposition, coolly pulling off tight stickhandling moves, firing passes or shots from anywhere, or playing keep-away to kill penalty time.

The slick center has as dangerous a shot as any player in the league; Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant has compared it to Brett Hull’s. But Hoffman is also capable – and willing – to set up teammates with pinpoint passes. Hoffman has high-end speed and skill that make him an asset in any situation. That’s why it’s hard to believe he didn’t really establish himself as a junior until last season, when he racked up 94 points in 62 games for Drummondville and was drafted in the fifth round as a 19-year-old by Ottawa. He followed that up with 85 points in 56 games this year.

The Kitchener, Ont., native couldn’t make it with the hometown Rangers of the Ontario League, which cut him loose after six games as a 17-year-old. Gatineau picked Hoffman up as a free agent the following season, but he lasted just 19 games there before the Olympiques traded him to Drummondville. Hoffman finally found a home there under coach Guy Boucher, tallying 36 points for a terrible team in his final 43 games before exploding last season.

“I know I was a late bloomer. I didn’t get the chance there in the OHL and Gatineau,” Hoffman said. “If you work hard and get the opportunity you can make stuff happen.”

Gatineau general manager Charlie Henry acknowledged to the Ottawa Citizen that there were concerns about the young Hoffman’s work ethic and defensive game, but he seems to have answered them as an older player. If there were concerns, Sea Dogs associate coach and director of hockey operations Mike Kelly certainly hasn’t seen them.

“I really and truly can’t comment on what he was like as a younger player. All I know is what I’ve seen here and he’s been real good for us,” Kelly said. “He’s an honest kid, he works hard, he’s focused and he wants to be a hockey player.”

Kelly and Gallant inherited Hoffman through a trade, but weren’t sure they’d get him back from the Senators. Once they did, it was a huge lift for the team, according to captain Mike Thomas.

“When we found out he was coming back, we were just really excited to have him,” Thomas said. “We knew what kind of player he was but we didn’t know what kind of person. When he got here, he had both of those (attributes), he helps our team from even what you can’t see.”

The Sea Dogs camp sees him as a positive dressing room ingredient, and the league even recognized him as its sportsman of the year, in addition to the MVP award. He’s likely bound for the American League’s Binghamton Senators next season and if he continues to develop, Kelly sees him as a sure-fire NHLer someday.

“He’s one of the most skilled players I’ve ever been with as far as pure skill,” said Kelly, who has coached in the NHL, as well as Canadian university and all three Canadian junior leagues. “He’s got an NHL shot and outstanding speed. I can’t think of anybody in junior hockey that has had that type of polish to their game. He’s got high, high-end speed, high, high-end skills and he understands his ability, knows how to use it and when to use it.

“There’s no doubt he’s going to be a pro. How long it takes to get to the National Hockey League will be the question. When he’s playing against men it will be a little different for him because he’s got to learn to play the pro game and get inside against bigger, stronger guys,” Kelly added. “I would expect anywhere around three years. Right now he’s got enough skill and speed to play there. It’s whether he can figure out the rest of it.”