Clark Cup rematch of five years ago has former Phantom, Force player recalling amazing run to title
Though it had a look of a new team, Griffin Loughran says 2017-18 Fargo title squad formed a tight bond
FARGO — Griffin Loughran said a few years ago he probably wasn’t ready to play in the USHL in 2016. The seventh-round draft pick by Youngstown that year was coming off a 55-goal, 114-point campaign with the Buffalo Jr. Sabres 18U team and had to change his game with the Phantoms.
As a goal scorer, he said, “I didn't really know how to play that third, fourth line role of being an energy guy and getting under people's skin. So it was tough for me to adjust for that.”
Scratched for all of a five-game, 15-day road trip with the Phantoms and having only two points in nine games, he was bumped to Corpus Christi of the NAHL and re-drafted by the Fargo Force that next season.
Then Force head coach and current general manager Cary Eades said Loughran's competitiveness drew the team to go after him. Plus, "he was a real thorn in people's side and pain the butt to play against," he said.
That season in Fargo gave Loughran's hockey career a major boost. The Force won the club’s only Clark Cup with that 3-1 series win over Youngstown and he was named the playoff MVP.
I remember that feeling of not playing and I just wanted to prove them wrong.
That 2017-18 series will be revived as the Force play the Phantoms in the Clark Cup championship best-of-five series beginning Friday night at Scheels Arena. For the Phantoms, its their second chance at winning the club’s first championship in its 20-year existence.
Known as a scorer who also racked up penalty minutes at times, Loughran joined several new faces on the Force five seasons ago. Players such as Ty Farmer, Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup and goaltender Strauss Mann earned USHL individual honors that season, but there were only a handful of second-year players on that squad.
“I don’t think we had any one huge scoring line,” Eades said.
The Force players soon found its NHL counterpart in the Vegas Golden Knights.
“It was their first year in the league in the NHL and they had a bunch of second-chance players from different teams in the NHL,” Loughran said. “We had a bunch of different players from all different junior teams, different teams in the USHL.”
The Force finished third in the Western Conference that season. Eades said his team benefited from the mid-season additions of defensemen Evan Bell, from the Chicago Steel, and Robbie Stucker, who had played five games at Merrimack, who not only helped solidify the blue line, but the team.
“It was a bunch of characters that really played their best hockey at the end of the year and were a pretty formidable team,” Eades said.
If Vegas could make it work, so could the Force, and that was the belief in the locker room, Loughran said.
Fueled by winning 14 of its last 16 games, it was simply a matter of putting all the pieces together. In Loughran’s only season with the Force, he set the team record with a six-point night, scoring three goals in a 6-5 win over Waterloo in early November.
Already backstopped by the best goaltending in Force history, Fargo turned a 23-14-7 record and a second-straight loss on Feb. 23 into quite a run.
“We kind of looked at it as a last-chance resort to even making the playoffs,” Loughran said. “We kind of bound to that and said ‘Screw it. We’ve got a chance to go out and make something for ourselves’ and we certainly did that, that’s for sure.”
Since his Clark Cup MVP award, Loughran scored 38 goals between Northern Michigan and Michigan State. The Orchard Park, N.Y., native transferred again to a school closer to home, Canisius — ideally for him, nicknamed the Golden Griffins — for his fifth and final season. Sitting out last year due to the NCAA rule for double transfers, he still made the trip with the Golden Griffins to Scheels Arena for the NCAA Regional in March against Minnesota.
Returning to Scheels Arena, where he produced 42 points in 50 games for the Force in the 2017-18 season, brought back good memories.
Loughran said the Force players that season were a tight group, often taking in movies or shooting pool together. They also made it a routine to meet at Kroll’s Diner for milkshakes on Thursday’s before departing for a weekend series.
“It’s the funny stuff that you remember the most, you know, when you look back on the season,” he said. “You can remember all the good times and all the good laughs you had, and that’s what brings teams close together and plays that much harder for each other. You want to do whatever it takes for each other out there.”
The inaugural Golden Knights team advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, but lost to Washington. The 2017-18 Force finished the job, the only team to do so in Fargo’s five trips to the finals.
The team rolled through the playoffs, never needing a deciding game. First it was 2-0 over Tri-City, 3-1 over Omaha, 3-1 over Anderson Cup-winning Waterloo and 3-1 over Youngstown.
It was former Phantoms in Loughran and Farmer who led the way in the finals. Farmer scored the championship-clinching goal late in Game 4 to give Fargo the 3-1 series victory. Loughran had seven goals and two assists in the 13 playoff games to earn MVP honors.
Plus, he just wanted to finally show Youngstown what he could do after he sat during that long road trip a year before.
“That was probably the most frustrating thing that I kept in the back of my mind when I was playing Youngstown for Fargo,” Loughran said. “I remember that feeling of not playing and I just wanted to prove them wrong.”