Hockey Hall Of Fame
LaFontaine was a Hall of a player . . . and person
(Reprinted from the Buffalo Evening News) By BOB DICESARE BUFFALO, NY, June 16, 2003
Pat LaFontaine will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, the highest honor he'll receive in his lifetime considering there's no shrine for selfless, sensitive and compassionate athletes.
I remember being out in the meat locker they called Sabreland to cover one of LaFontaine's first practices with the Sabres following his acquisition from the Islanders. A group of children with Down Syndrome were parked in the bleachers against the glass. LaFontaine took to the ice and immediately skated over to where they were seated. He chatted for a few minutes, took a warm-up lap and came to a halt directly in front of me.
"You know, Bob," he said, "we really don't know how lucky we have it. We just take so much for granted." And then away he skated, leaving me to contemplation.
Never in 21 years of covering sports have I met an athlete who measures up to LaFontaine when assessing both the magnitude of the talent and the quality of the individual. He was a superstar without pretense, an idol securely grounded, always stopping to put himself in the other person's shoes.
In Sacramento, following a morning skate for a neutral-site game, he came from the back of the bus to sign an autograph for a child who'd missed him leaving the arena. LaFontaine reboarded and apologized for delaying the team's departure, saying he felt compelled to sign because they were outside NHL territory and the child might never see him again.
The Sabres arrived in Boston late one night, busing through a snowstorm after winning a game in Hartford. LaFontaine sensed an opportunity and paid a bar owner to keep his doors open for an hour. His teammates were tickled. Amazing what a small gesture like that does to tighten team bonds.
The breadth of LaFontaine's magnanimity was never fully understood or appreciated until he returned to Buffalo two years ago to promote and sign his book, "Companions in Courage," a collection of stories about young people who'd overcome adversity or faced their challenges with notable bravery. The book store was jammed with his fans, seemingly each of them with a touching story to tell of how LaFontaine had brought comfort to an ailing friend or family member. Rhonda Rehanek of Niagara Falls was a stream of tears as she explained how LaFontaine had visited her ill daughter and then arranged for Jennifer to talk with her real sports hero: Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas.
"He's unique," Rehanek said that day. "He's a gem."
LaFontaine was, in some ways, the media's nightmare. Here he was, one of the league's premier players, an MVP candidate in '92-93, but incapable of being lured into talking about himself. Credit was always deferred to his teammates, to the goaltender who'd made a key save or the defensemen who'd excelled on the penalty kill. Sometimes he'd run down practically the whole roster while pointing out the contributions that had figured in the result, his own multi-point game brushed aside as incidental.
There was never a Sabres season like '92-93, when LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny hit on a chemistry unmatched by Buffalo teammates before or since. Mogilny, who owes his development to LaFontaine's example, had strung eight straight games with goals heading into a Jan. 6 meeting with the Hartford Whalers. LaFontaine, who scored twice in a 3-1 victory that night, sat at his cubicle apologizing that Mogilny's streak had ended, vowing to make amends.
"I'm going to take him to breakfast, I'm going to take him to lunch, I'm going to feed him every chance I get," LaFontaine said. "I've been doing my very best to find him open. And that's not going to change."
As that magical season progressed, LaFontaine seized the scoring lead and loomed as the top candidate for league MVP. He was en route to 53 goals and a franchise-record 148 points, in the process of guiding Mogilny's goal count to a startling 76. But, with 13 games remaining, LaFontaine already was conceding the MVP vote to the player who would miss 22 games yet overtake him for the scoring title.
"To be truthful, if I had a vote I would vote for Mario Lemieux for MVP," LaFontaine said. "To come back like he did (from Hodgkin's disease) is amazing."
There's no doubt that LaFontaine deserves a place among the game's elite. But his was a career in which statistics don't begin to tell the story.