Pat LaFontaine

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Pat Lafontaine took a rather unconventional route to the NHL, at least for an American boy.

Lafontaine, who grew up in Michigan, opted to play with Verdun of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as opposed to playing US High School and then college. In his only season in the Canadian junior leagues (1983), Pat absolutely dominated. He was named the top junior player as he scored 104 goals and 234 points in just 70 games. Only Mario Lemieux scored more points (282) in a CHL season.

The next season Pat played for the US National team scoring 56 times in 58 games while assisting on 55 others. But despite an impressive 5 goal, 10 point effort from Lafontaine in the 1984 Olympic Games, Team USA finished a disappointing 7th place finish.

Pat LaFontaine joined the New York Islanders right after the 1984 Winter Olympics. Drafted 3rd overall in 1983 by the Isles, Lafontaine immediately made a late season impression in the NHL, scoring 13 times in 15 games. However Lafontaine's scoring punch couldn't offset that of Wayne Gretzky's, as the Oilers dethroned the 4 time champion New York in the Stanley Cup finals.

The Islanders never returned to the finals during LaFontaine's seven full seasons with the team. The Islander's dynasty slowly declined while Lafontaine emerged the Islanders' best player and face of the franchise. In Mike Bossy's last season Lafontaine equaled his goal scoring exploits. The following season was the unofficial marking of the Lafontaine Era on Long Island. While it would not prove to be as successful as the Dynasty Era, Lafontaine proved to be as good as any of the long line of legends in New York Islander history

In 1987, No. 16 provided one of the NHL's most dramatic moments in Stanley Cup history when he scored at nearly 3 a.m. to give the Islanders a 3-2 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller against Washington in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.

LaFontaine scored 287 goals as an Islander, tied for fifth in club history. In an average season he was pushing 50 goals and 90 points. In 1989-90 he scored a career high 54 goals!

During this time of brilliance, the Islanders struggled and had little playoff success. Lafontaine was heralded as a great individualist talent, but criticized for the lack of his team's success. His line was once called the Helicopter Line because the super talented Lafontaine was in the middle but used no wings!

But after a contract dispute with management in 1991, the fan favorite was dealt to Buffalo in a mega-deal that brought Pierre Turgeon, Uwe Krupp and Benoit Hogue to Long Island.

LaFontaine instantly became the leader of the Sabres. He finished his abbreviated season with an amazing 46 goals and 93 points in just 57 games. In 1993 he exploded with 53 goals and a career-high 148 points. LaFontaine teamed up in spectacular fashion with Alexander Mogilny that season, had a new home. LaFontaine finished as runner-up to Mario Lemieux in the scoring race and earned a spot on the postseason NHL All-Star Second Team. He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and the Lady Byng Trophy as the most sportsmanlike player. LaFontaine's incredible chemistry with Mogilny also helped shake the Helicopter label.

Injuries would rob us one of the most exciting tandems in modern history. Mogilny suffered a serious ankle injury in the playoffs and would later be traded to Vancouver. Lafontaine missed all but 16 games in 1993-94 due to a serious knee injury. He returned for only 22 games in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. For his perseverance and dedication he was awarded the Bill Masterton trophy.

Lafontaine was looking forward to the 1996-97 season as his first injury free campaign and had hoped to get back on track. But on Oct. 17, 1996, LaFontaine's world came crashing down. He had suffered concussions before, but his fifth changed his life forever. The player known for energy and love of the game was in a fog. He missed the rest of the regular season with post-concussion syndrome.

In September of 1997, Lafontaine boldly announced he would return to the NHL, however Buffalo Sabres team doctors refused to give him clearance to play. The impasse was resolved when the Sabres traded Lafontaine to the New York Rangers, making Lafontaine the first player to play for all 3 New York state based NHL teams. Jason Dawe has since joined this exclusive club.

LaFontaine's comeback was the talk of the NHL. Armed with a special helmet and mouthpiece, he started the season with 42 points in his first 41 games. But on March 16, a collision with teammate Mike Keane turned into his worst nightmare. Lafontaine had played his last hockey game.

In the summer of 1998 Lafontaine finally admitted what the doctors had been trying to tell him for some time - it was too dangerous for him to play hockey. Its too bad for hockey fans, as Lafontaine was one of the most electrifying men on skates - a true Legend of the Ice.

Lafontaine was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My favorite all time player since his rookie year...I've worn 16 ever since I began playing hockey because of him (even though he's only a year older than I am). One of the most exciting players ever in the NHL and would have been considered among the all-time elites if it hadn't been for injuries and concussions. And just an all around excellent human being as well. Thanks for the article!

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