Sometimes big things start from small ideas.
Former Coquitlam Express forward Mark Soares has travelled a long route through the nation’s winter sport, opened multiple doors that most wouldn’t expect for someone who always battled through the perception of taller players and higher hockey minds.
And, while an injury put the brakes to his playing career – after a successful three-year stint playing pro in Europe – hockey remains in his DNA.
Soares, who emerged from four years at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay with a degree in business, is eager to share his experience and knowledge with young hockey players as part of his new venture, Maxx Force Hockey.
“I decided to start a hockey business, something I’m passionate about. Now I’m all about developing young hockey players and shaping them into the players they want to be,” said Soares, who played for the Express from 2001-’05, then followed the team to Burnaby for the ’05-’06 season.
His route to this spot involved a Royal Bank Cup title, a disappointing intro to college hockey, a great collegiate bounce back, and three seasons -- interrupted by a year to mend a torn knee -- of pro in the German second division and Dutch leagues.
Every step of the way there was a hurdle or two to get through, but the five-foot-six forward took each as a challenge.
From an early age, Soares faced questions about his size and how coaches perceived his ability to survive, never mind thrive, against bigger kids. He got short shrift at his first two junior A hockey camps as a 16-year-old, and made it his personal goal that his last stop, the Coquitlam Express, wouldn’t be able to say no.
“You see now smaller players are given more opportunities to play – it didn’t happen too much back in the day,” he recalled of the 2001 B.C. Hockey League training camp. “My size was certainly a factor but I never gave any coaches any excuses. I always showed up in shape, probably better than 90 per cent of the guys in camp. I gave them no reasons to cut me.
“For me it was kind of the last resort and I had to give it my all to get on the team. I basically wasn’t taking no for an answer despite my size against me, my age – I just turned 16 at the camp. The lesson would be not to give up.”
Despite the size and age gap most saw as a hindrance, Soares cleared that hurdle by tallying 14 goals and 26 assists over 57 games as a rookie.
It was a prime situation for the young winger, whose skating style and demeanour was a little reminiscent of 1960-70s Montreal Canadiens star Yvan Cournoyer. One year he was on a line with future NHLer Andrew Ladd, and in his fourth season in Coquitlam sat beside Milan Lucic – both up-and-coming teens who took their Express experiences to the highest level.
In his fourth season of junior hockey, Soares put up 37 goals in 60 games, attracting an NCAA Div. 1 scholarship to Bemidji in Minnesota. However, the program's coach didn't dress him during the first few months, leaving the player frustrated. That sparked the Express management team, co-owner and GM Darcy Rota and head coach Rick Lanz, to inquire why there was no opportunity for the forward.
In the end, Lanz and Rota asked Soares if he'd return to finish the 2005-06 year with his old club, which had relocated to Burnaby’s Copeland Arena.
It turned into one of the last big pieces for an incredible season, where the Kyle Turris-led Express steamrolled all the way to a Royal Bank Cup national championship. His final tally in an Express uniform was 116 goals and 103 assists over 258 regular season games, plus 22 goals and 14 assists during 34 playoff games.
After the national final, Soares inked a scholarship with Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. During his four years there he earned the Ontario Athletic West’s Rookie of the Year prize, a second team all-star and, in his final year, the OUA’s Most Sportsmanlike Player.
From there, the question of ‘What’s next?’ became a travelogue that steered Soares to the German second division with Kaufbeuren, where he was one of the team’s top-five scorers.
“It was absolutely amazing,” he said. “To go and play in Europe was incredible. You get to travel basically for free, on your days’ off you can take off to Italy, Austria or different parts of Europe and come back the next day on about 100 Euro, it was quite the experience.”
After two seasons with Kaufbeuren, Soares signed for more money with third division Weiden Blue Devils, who were looking to qualify for a second division berth. Just three games into his tenure, he suffered a knee injury that saw both his ACL and MCL torn, resulting in a lengthy road of recovery.
Even with a second surgery, done here, the knee eventually forced him to retire after 2013/14. There were fewer decisions more difficult.
“I had constant pain, before and after games,” Soares said. “It’s extremely tough to give it up. For me to walk away was pretty difficult. In my mind, and the way I felt I still had a ton of energy and the capability to play, but my knee basically wouldn’t let me.”
But Soares couldn’t give up the game completely, and now he’s finding the thrill of the sport in helping others work on and improve their skills.
Soares said the influence of those coaches -- like Ron Johnson, Sean Crowther, Rick Lanz and his father -- helped him is part of what he shares with his students.
“For me, it’s giving back to the kids. I had good coaches growing up and I really enjoy having a hockey stick in my hand and shooting the puck, passing with the kids and working with them to see them develop to become better hockey players. For me, it’s kind of a replacement of hockey, of what hockey did for me.”
Operating in Burnaby, Coquitlam, New West, Langley and Delta, Soares leads on-ice and artificial ice sessions in shooting, puck handling and skating.
To find out more go to www.maxxforcehockey.com.