By Dan Hickling
He's a little thinner on top and perhaps a bit thicker through the upper body.
But Mike Hoffman (Scituate, Mass.) is still pretty much the same guy who spent parts of two seasons as a Portland Pirate muscleman five years ago.
Fists like hammers, which belie his outgoing nature.
Oh, he's a little smarter than he was back when he first pulled on a Pirates sweater. The master's degree in sports management he earned in Ireland (University of Ulsterat) is proof of that.
And the face bears a few additional telltale signs of hammering by fellow heavyweights along a trail that has taken him from coast to coast and shore to shore.
“It's been a wild ride,” said Hoffman, “but a lot of fun. It's good to be back. (Portland) is definitely one of my favorite places I've ever played.”
Likewise, the reappearance of Hoffman in Portland is a welcome sight for the Pirates, whose skilled forwards (Andy Miele, Brett Hextall, et al) measure on the small side.
“’Hoff' knows why he's here,” said Pirates coach Ray Edwards. “He's here to keep the flies off our skilled players a little better.”
Hoffman's own frame -- 6-foot-5, 250 pounds -- is enough of a deterrent to opponents bent on taking undo liberties with his new mates.
“Hockey-wise,” he said, “I feel like I'm a more mature player. As a fighter, I know my role better.”
Proof that Hoffman received more than book learning in Belfast, where he became a Giant (literally and figuratively). There, for once in his career, Hoffman became one of his team's top scorers (career-high 10 goals) and wasn't one of its leading PIM gatherers.
“Last year,” he said, “I wanted to prove that I can actually play some skilled hockey. I got that out of me. Now I want to come back and live the dream again.”
Regardless of how much longer Hoffman plays, he's already laid the groundwork for his next career.
Hoffman, who did his undergrad work at UConn, spent last summer as an intern with the Boston Bruins in their youth hockey initiative.
“I've seen all sides of hockey,” he said. “When you've seen both sides of the puck, it's a different environment. I've benefited from it. It could take me beyond my playing career.”
Who knows, it could keep bringing him back to Portland.
Around the AHL
One thing that has changed in the years since Hoffman left Portland is the nature of the enforcer's role. The increased scrutiny placed on brain injuries, as well as the recent string of deaths among the game's fighters (Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Bob Probert, et al) has caused many to question the role of fighting. The New York Times' recent extensive look into Boogaard's life and death has added plenty to the conversation. For his part, Hoffman said he is aware of the inherent risks, but feels he knows where the limits are. “I read every article,” said Hoffman, “because I'm preparing to do the job that he (Boogaard) did. It's a tough situation, because there's a need for it in hockey. Ask any skilled guy, or any European guy, and they'll say fighting is needed in hockey. The challenge is where to draw the line with regard to injuries. Guys are getting injured and they're not telling anybody. It causes things beyond a little headache. … There will be some rule changes. But it will never be out of the game. There's a need for it. It's kept a lot of us in business.”
Dan Hickling can be reached at email@example.com.