Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Pat LaFontaine was sitting home in Long Island, N.Y., watching a computer feed of Shattuck-St. Mary’s play the Mid-Fairfield Blues at the USA Hockey National Championships in Pittsburgh when his 17-year-old nephew Jean-Paul wristed a shot past the Mid-Fairfield goalie.
CHAMPIONS IN COURAGE
The Champions In Courage Foundation is a non-profit organization designed to help children and their families who are overcoming illness and life-threatening obstacles. To learn more, please go to CIC16.org.
As the puck hit the back of the net, LaFontaine caught a glimpse of his father, John Sr., watching the play from behind the goal. He immediately called dad to rave about the goal. Thinking his son was somewhere inside the rink, John walked out of camera range to search the stands before LaFontaine reminded him that he was following the action from long distance.
Fast-forward 24 hours and the NHL Hall of Famer was at the RMU Island Sports Center standing shoulder to shoulder with his father watching the game in living color. Checking out some of the country’s top Midget teams in action, LaFontaine couldn’t help but think back to a time when he was competing at a USA Hockey National Championship tournament.
“It was kind of nice to get up early and come to the rink,” LaFontaine said while keeping an eye on the action. “There’s something special about being around the rinks. It brings you back to your childhood.”
In between periods a trip to the snack bar for coffee was prolonged by greetings from old friends and acquaintances from his youth hockey days. Every familiar face in the stands triggered that million-dollar smile and brought back a flood of fond memories.
“The hockey world is a very small place,” he said upon returning to the rink with coffee in hand. “It’s a nice fraternity that comes from being around rinks for so long. You meet, for the most part, a lot of good quality people.
“There’s a longevity there. You never forget the smell of the hockey rink.”
Eleven years removed from the NHL, the 44-year-old LaFontaine looks like he could still play at the highest levels. He looks in great shape and shows no signs of the post-concussion syndrome that cut short a career that spanned 15 seasons with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.
“When you retire from this game at the pro level, any level for that matter, the only two things you truly miss is being on the ice and laughing with the guys,” said LaFontaine who notched 468 goals and 1,013 points despite missing substantial parts of three seasons.
“I never really retired. I still skate and hang out with the guys. There’s that special camaraderie on and off the ice that you always share with the hockey world.”
Being in Pittsburgh has been a family affair for the LaFontaine clan. In addition to his father, his sister, sister-in-law and her family were in Pittsburgh to watch Jean-Paul play. Pat’s brother, John, the athletic director at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, was in Dallas at the 14 & Under tournament.
“We’re keeping him updated and he’s keeping us updated,” he said.
Growing up in St. Louis, LaFontaine moved to Michigan at a young age and played youth hockey in the Detroit area with the Compuware program. As a 16-year-old he scored 175 goals and 324 points playing for what some would say is one of the greatest youth teams of all time, going 80 wins and 2 losses on a team that included Al Iafrate. The two would reunite as teammates on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team.
“Years later here we are running into each other at rinks and still coaching around rinks. It’s a lot of fun,” said LaFontaine, who was also a member of the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team and the U.S. squad that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
By the time he reached the age of most of the competitors on the ice, LaFontaine was making his professional debut with the Islanders. Still, he marvels at today’s athletes.
“It’s kind of hard for me to comment because when I was this age I was playing pro, which is a whole different level,” said the 3rd overall pick of the Islanders in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. “But still, the quality of hockey in general at this level is very impressive. They can all skate and they can all move the puck well.
“When you get to this level you have the best of the best, and it is really good hockey to watch.”
For a complete list of scores and statistics from each of the USA Hockey National Championship sites, please go to USAHockey.com/20 Youth Nationals.
“It’s kind of hard for me to comment because when I was this age I was playing pro, which is a whole different level,” said the 3rd overall pick of the Islanders in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. “But still, the quality of hockey in general at this level is very
Back home on Long Island, LaFontaine stays connected to the game by working with his son’s youth teams. Next year he plans on taking the big step of coaching the Bantam squad. Like most dads who coach their kids, he is trying to strike a balance where his son listens to him on the ice.
Pat Lafontaine' jersey being retired“My sister-in-law says the same thing. Jean-Paul won’t listen to his dad now but he will probably listen to his uncle Pat. That’s the way it goes,” said the only player to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in Toronto and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in the same year.
“When you’re a coach and you’re coaching your son, it’s kind of a lose-lose thing. You have to be very careful because you’re always a father first. So I always get the assistant coach to get on him if he’s not playing well. Kids tend to tune you out because they hear that voice all the time.”
After years of providing fans with so many thrills on the ice, LaFontaine has transitioned into a new career that brings smiles to the faces of those who could use it most. He founded Champions in Courage in 1997, and has dedicated the last 11 years to helping to improve the quality of life for sick children around the country.
He has worked tirelessly to build interactive playrooms in hospitals across North America for children of all ages. He recently teamed up with the NHL to build a Lion’s Den at the Sainte-Justine University Children’s Hospital as part of the All-Star celebration in Montreal. The plan is to build similar rooms at children’s hospitals in future All-Star cities.
“These kids didn’t have TVs or computers in their rooms so we created this oasis for them,” LaFontaine said with pride.
“They were so excited. One of the nurses came in with tears in her eyes and said there used to be eight to 10 kids gathered around the computer every night waiting to go on. Now they have a room full of computers.”
Talk about the wonders of modern technology.