by Brian McCormack | AHL On The Beat
San Antonio Rampage defenseman Sam Lofquist is no stranger to packing up and moving. Over the last seven seasons, he has played for six teams across four leagues in Europe. He’s played professionally in Sweden, Finland, Russia and Switzerland, and he is now a regular in the American Hockey League.
With over 300 professional games ‘across the pond,’ many don’t realize that Lofquist’s winding pro hockey path began in the United States.
“It’s been strange several times in my career,” said the blonde, Wisconsin-born defenseman with a chuckle. “When I was selected for the U-17 and U-18 U.S. National Program, I was selected late. They told me it was because they thought I was from Sweden. When they realized I was American, I was in.”
Scanning the rosters of European teams, it’s very common to find older players from the U.S. and Canada who played professionally in North America for several years before making the move to European leagues. Lofquist, uniquely, chose to make that move almost immediately upon starting his professional career.
“It boggles my mind a bit because I did it the reverse way. I think it was a good decision for me because things weren’t panning out how I wanted right away, and I saw the change needed to be made,” said Lofquist. “And luckily I grew as a player and a person as well.”
Lofquist grew up playing in Somerset, Wisconsin, played two seasons with the U.S. National Development Program, and represented the United States at the U-18 World Juniors in 2008. He went on to play one full season at the University of Minnesota and three games of his sophomore season, before deciding a change was needed and moving to the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League for the next two years.
After playing one game with the AHL’s Houston Aeros at the end of the 2010-11 campaign, Lofquist spent the following summer attending Minnesota Wild and Aeros camps. He began the 2011-12 season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, but knew his situation wasn’t the best fit for him.
That’s when he decided to try a new path.
“It seemed to make a lot more sense to me to go to Europe right away. I liked the chances I was going to get with the teams I ended up going to and I’m really glad about my choice,” said Lofquist.
He would play parts of three seasons in Sweden’s Allsvenskan league, playing in 144 games and leading all defenseman with 13 goals in 2012-13. From there, Lofquist played two years in Liiga in Finland, a season in the KHL, and last season in the NLA in Switzerland.
Just by making a team in Europe, Lofquist knew he was going to find opportunities that wouldn’t be guaranteed elsewhere. Now 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Lofquist was a smaller player in his youth and needed time to develop before his body matched his skill set.
“The thing about European hockey that people might not know is that there’s a limit on the number of foreigners that a team can bring over. If you’re a foreigner playing over there, you’re expected to be one of the best players on the team, to carry the team and be relied on in all roles,” said Lofquist.
“That was awesome for me. In North America, maybe I would’ve gotten the spot on the team I wanted but I wouldn’t have played or developed nearly as much. All those years, I was able to play big minutes in all situations and it made me a more complete player.”
It also makes him a valuable resource for friends taking the more traditional career path to Europe. For those heading the other way across the Atlantic, Lofquist knows a thing or two.
“When I went over, the youngest import I played with was three years older than me until maybe my fourth year of pro. Then I started seeing guys closer to my age,” said Lofquist. “Now I’ll get people asking me quite a bit about it, and I’m happy to tell anyone who’s interested.”
With so much change from year to year, Lofquist and his wife would discuss at the end of each season where they wanted to be next. In the spring of 2018, there was a new factor in the decision-making process that brought them home to the U.S. – a plus-one.
“We had our first child, a son in April. My season ended on April 10th and we had him on April 21st. We wanted to see how we felt after he was born, and we thought it was best to at least try to get back to North America,” said Lofquist.
With that, the Lofquists found a home in San Antonio where Sam signed an AHL contract and found himself once again dressing in an AHL locker room in Texas, over 2,700 days after the first time in Houston.
“Sam is a hard-working defenseman and he’s easy to teach,” said Rampage assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who finished his own playing career in Switzerland following 898 games in the NHL. “He’s adapted well to the North American style of hockey, where players aren’t in constant motion but use more stops and starts and go north and south. Sam has good skating abilities and a powerful one-timer, and he has good practice habits.”
Despite playing in North American rinks for the first 20 years of his life, it was still an adjustment for Lofquist after seven years on the larger ice.
“The league’s been great and I like the smaller ice. It makes the defending a little bit different and I’ve adjusted to that,” said Lofquist. “Generating offense, it’s good for my shot because anywhere I shoot from can be a threat. I think it suits my game well to be on the smaller ice.”
It took time, but a bold decision for a young player who may not have been AHL ready at 20 years old has prolonged his career and helped him climb to one of the highest levels of the sport.
“Every kid grows up wanting to play in the NHL or AHL and you try to find the route that will take you there. It’s been a unique route and I’m glad that I’m still playing at this age. I think anyone who’s still playing at 28 is a lucky person.”