Jim Hofford: From Amerks captain to Greece mall captain

by Jim Mandelaro, Staff Writer, Democrat and Chronicle December 21, 2014

The mall walkers know.

Most of them are in their 60s and 70s now. They bring their photos, autograph books and pens to their morning exercise regimen. And the object of their affection the general manager of the Mall at Greece Ridge willingly obliges.

To them, Jim Hofford isn't a mall star. He's an all-star.

"The mall walkers love him," says Melanie Fazio, the mall's marketing director. "They all know who he is. They're former season ticket holders who all come up and shake his hand."

Hofford laughs.

"They have very good memories," the Fairport resident says.

In another life, Hofford was a mud-in-your-eye, take-one-for-the-team, gritty defenseman for the Rochester Americans. He played parts or all of six seasons for the minor-league hockey team from 1984-90 and was captain of the 1987 Calder Cup champions. He was named to the Amerks' 50th-anniversary team and was inducted into the team's Hall of Fame in 1998.

"My job was to hit and play miserable," he once said.

Hofford, 50, laughs at that quote now.

"My role was to be a stay-at-home defenseman and be hard to play against," he says. "The only thing I cared about was that the guys I played against respected me. They knew what I brought."

What he didn't bring was goals. The Canadian native scored only 10 in 319 regular-season games with the Amerks, and none in 18 National Hockey League games. But his impact could never be measured in a box score.

"You never knew how valuable 'Hof' was until he wasn't in the lineup," his longtime coach, John Van Boxmeer, once said.

Amerks legend Jody Gage seconds that emotion.

"Hof was our captain, and not only did he lead on the ice, he led off the ice," Gage says. "He was the ultimate team player. He fought for his teammates and kept things simple.

"You hated to play against him, but you loved when he was on your team."

Hofford, the Buffalo Sabres' sixth-round pick in 1983, says he never cared about scoring.

"I just wanted to do my job," he says.

As the mall workers and all longtime Amerks fans know, Hofford did score a crucial goal in the first round of the 1986-87 playoffs. And it came in a most unlikely fashion.

The Amerks were playing the rival Hershey Bears, and the first two games were moved to Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium "The Aud" because Rochester's War Memorial was previously booked for the Shrine Circus.

Hofford was injured and in street clothes for Game 2. But with no game officials on the ice (a common occurrence at the time), a pregame brawl broke out between the teams. Players on both sides received suspensions, and Amerks tough-guy Andy Ristau suffered a concussion. Hofford was an emergency addition to the roster and switched from his casual sweater to his Amerks sweater. It all paid off when he scored the game-winning goal in overtime a rarer sight than a hockey player with a full set of teeth.

"I didn't even see it go in the net," he says with a laugh. "A blind squirrel finds a nut. I knew the goal was ahead of me and I just shot. I was pretty excited."

The Amerks went on to win Calder Cup championship, cementing Hofford's place in team lore.

"I can always say I scored in the Aud," he says, smiling. "Just not in the NHL."

Gage, a man with a record 351 goals for Rochester, calls Hofford's goal "one of the biggest in Amerks history."

Hofford played 17 NHL games with the Sabres and one with the Los Angeles Kings. "A cup of coffee," he says. "But I got to live my dream." He made his own impact literally, delivering crushing checks on Montreal's Bobby Smith and Washington's Michal Pivonka that then-Sabres coach Scotty Bowman called two of the best he had ever seen.

Hofford was claimed off waivers by the Kings in October 1988, played one game with The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, and then was reclaimed by the Sabres.

"Just a weird time," he says. "But hey, I got to play with Gretzky."

Hofford retired after suffering a serious knee injury in preseason camp with the Amerks in 1990. He had formed strong relationships in Rochester and decided to stay.

"I miss the players and the competing," he says. "I love to compete."

He goes to Amerks games occasionally, but it took a long time for him to show up at the arena as a fan.

"I left because I was injured, basically," he said. "I wanted to continue to play."

He was only 26 when he retired. He started going to school part-time at SUNY Geneseo while working as an assistant to hockey coach Paul Duffy. He fueled airplanes "a great job until it got cold," he says. It was during that job that he met Jim Wilmot, executive vice president at Wilmorite Property Management. Wilmot suggested the former hockey player get his college degree.

Hofford landed a job at Xerox in Webster, disassembling toner cartridges, and then went back to school full time and graduated from St. John Fisher College in 1994. He went back to Wilmot to ask for a job and was given one as lead housekeeper on the second shift at Irondequoit Mall.

"A lot of custodial duties and patrolling the mall," he says.

In the small-world department, his boss was former Amerks teammate Clint Fehr, who was the mall's facilities manager.

Hofford shifted to Wilmorite's main office on Scottsville Road before taking over as GM of The Mall at Greece Ridge in 1998. He describes his job as "mayor of the mall, basically." He oversees about 50 people (including 30 security guards) and 140 stores spread out over 1.5 million square feet, making The Mall at Greece Ridge the largest in Rochester.

"I have a lot of good people working for me," he says. "We're like our own little city."

Hofford arrives early and leaves late, but he isn't complaining.

"I've been lucky," he says. "I loved coming to the rink, and I love coming to the mall."

As if those duties weren't enough, he has been head varsity hockey coach at Aquinas Institute since 2009.

"I haven't sent anyone to the NHL, but we've had a lot of successes just not on the scoreboard," he says. "I've seen a lot of guys grow up and mature, and I count that as a success."

Hofford has three children: Son Alex is a senior at the State University of New York at Albany; son Mac is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Rochester; and daughter Isabel is a sophomore at Fairport High, a lacrosse star who plans to play at Hofstra University.

One of Hofford's great thrills since taking over the mall came in July 2003. That's when Greece native Brian Gionta brought the revered Stanley Cup often described as the greatest trophy in team sports to the mall. Gionta, now with the Sabres, was then a second-year winger for the NHL champion New Jersey Devils.

Hundreds took photos and posed with the Cup that day, among them the Amerks legend who has played hockey since he was 5 and grew up idolizing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Hofford smiles at the memory and the irony.

"It's funny," he says. "It took me being a mall manager to raise the Stanley Cup."

The Hofford file

Age: 50.

Roots: Grew up in Sudbury, Ont., northwest of Toronto.

Hockey pro: Played six seasons with the Rochester Americans in the 1980s and was captain of the 1987 Calder Cup champions. Named to the Amerks' 50th-anniversary team and inducted into the Amerks Hall of Fame in 1998.

Current role: General manager of The Mall at Greece Ridge since 1998. Oversees around 50 employees and 140 stores.