Although he'll always be considered among the greatest of all American-born players, the sad truth about Pat LaFontaine's career is that he could have accomplished a great deal more.
If only he had gotten the chance.
|Pat LaFontaine finished his career with the Rangers, but his glory days came with the Islanders.(Getty Images)|
And when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame on Monday night along with Grant Fuhr in the players section and Mike Ilitch and Brian Kilrea in the builders division, the game will express its gratitude for what LaFontaine gave back both on the ice and off.
"He was one of the best players of his time and he did a lot for American hockey," said former teammate Alexander Mogilny. "You have to give him credit for that."
Born in St. Louis and raised in the Detroit area, LaFontaine began playing hockey as a youngster without really harboring any ambition of turning pro. There were few Americans in the NHL when he was a kid, and as far as LaFontaine was concerned, if his talents were good enough to earn him a college scholarship, that would have been a major accomplishment.
"In those days, that was what you aspired to be as an American player," he said.
Then the 1980 Miracle on Ice happened. LaFontaine was 15 at the time and started to see doors in the NHL opening for U.S.-born players. He decided that was the route he wanted to follow and instead of looking for a college opportunity, he went to play in one of Canada's top junior leagues.
Smart move. Joining the Verdun team of the Quebec league in 1982-83, LaFontaine quickly caught the attention of scouts everywhere by scoring an amazing 104 goals and 130 assists in just 70 games. He ended up getting drafted third overall that spring by the New York Islanders, who were coming off their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup victory.
LaFontaine was good enough to make the Islanders roster the following season, but he didn't forget where he came from. So he delayed turning pro until late in the second half in order to play for the U.S. team at the Sarajevo Olympics.
"Getting a chance to represent my country was something I really wanted to do," said LaFontaine, who also represented the U.S. at the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups, the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Olympics. "It was an incredible feeling."
Even if the results weren't very good. The Americans finished a disappointing sixth in the Yugoslavian tournament, but LaFontaine was their best player, scoring five times and adding three assists in eight games. He picked up right where he left when he became an Islander, scoring 13 goals in a limited role over the team's final 15 games.
"I was lucky coming into that situation because they still had so many great players who were able to teach what it meant to be a professional both on and off the ice," LaFontaine said.
They were lessons that he learned well. Within two years, LaFontaine became one of New York's top producers on the ice, and one of its most important and popular players in the community, so much so that his involvement in charitable endeavors brought him as much attention as his game. Well nearly.
"It was obvious from the time he came into the league he was special," said former Islander teammate, goaltender Kelly Hrudey. "Even when our team started to slip, he kept people in the seats because he was someone they would pay to see."
No wonder. Standing five-feet-10 and weighing 180 pounds, LaFontaine wasn't big even in an era when players were generally smaller than they are today, but he had great speed, excellent stickhandling ability and a flair for the dramatic.
That was never more evident than on Easter Sunday in 1987, when he scored the most famous goal of his career, ending Game 7 of the division semifinal against Washington in the fourth overtime period.
"I'm kind of flattered that people still talk about and tell me that they remember, but I wonder sometimes because it was about 2 a.m. when I scored," LaFontaine laughed.
What Islanders fans certainly don't forget is that LaFontaine scored more than 40 goals three times for them and had a 54-goal campaign in 1989-90. He was undoubtedly one of the league's elite players, but when the team took a hard-line position with him in a contract dispute in 1991, LaFontaine took his own stand and ended up getting traded to Buffalo in a major deal that saw Pierre Turgeon go the other way.
"It was difficult because my wife was from Long Island and I loved playing there, but there was a commitment made to me that wasn't followed through," LaFontaine said. "I'm proud of the fact that I was able to take a stand on principle when I was at a young age."
As it turned out, shuffling off to Buffalo wasn't really so bad for LaFontaine. He ended up on a line with a young Mogilny, and the two started tearing up the league. In their first year together, LaFontaine had 46 goals and 93 points, while Mogilny had 39 goals and 84 points, and then in 1992-93, Mogilny scored 76 times while his center chipped in with 53 goals and 95 assists for 148 points.
"He was fast and electrifying and back then, I was young and fast too," laughed Mogilny, now with Toronto. "He had those incredible offensive instincts and we complimented each other well."
The next year though, injuries began to take their toll on LaFontaine when he tried to come back too soon from a right knee problem he developed in the 1993 playoffs. He ended up playing just 16 games and underwent reconstructive surgery, which cost him the rest of that year and most the lockout-abbreviated 1995-95 season.
He came back strong the following year with 40 goals in 76 games, but early in the 1996-97 he suffered a concussion, which limited him to just 13 games and marked the beginning of the end of his career.
LaFontaine wanted to come back the following year, but the Sabres were in a cost-cutting mode and traded him to the Rangers. He played 67 games in New York and scored 23 goals, but retired before the season was over after suffering another concussion.
That ended a career in which he became the second-best American-born goal scorer behind Joe Mullen with 468 goals in 865 games. He also added 545 assists, giving him an average of 1.117 points per game, which had he been able to get in another 400-500 games, would have put him among the top producers of all time.
That doesn't matter to him now. LaFontaine is back living in Long Island and says he's very content spending more time with his family and his foundation, Companions in Courage, which builds interactive playrooms in hospitals across the country to help children isolated in hospitals connect to the outside world.
"If I didn't come back, I would have been haunted," he said. "But that one year with the Rangers allowed me to go forward with the rest of my life. I'm grateful for that and for the chance to give something back."