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HWAA has LaFontaine remembering his hockey roots

Friday, 02.17.2012 / 10:01 AM / Hockey Weekend Across America

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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HWAA has LaFontaine remembering his hockey roots
Pat LaFontaine is a big fan of Hockey Weekend Across America because of what it does for hockey – promotes young players getting on the ice. It also has him reminiscing about his own start on the ice.
Pat LaFontaine's love for ice hockey began similarly to any other American with a dream of making it big one day.

It's one reason why he looks forward to Hockey Weekend Across America each season.

"To celebrate the game and bring out more awareness to some boys, girls and parents who might not know the game as well, and introduce it to them, it's a great thing," LaFontaine told NHL.com. "Hockey has been celebrated in Canada for as long as I can remember, but when you think of our hockey history, I feel it's just as important for the United States to celebrate, as well."

Greatest assist happens off the ice



It's been 15 years since Hall of Fame center Pat LaFontaine first introduced children and families of North America to his Companions in Courage Foundation.

Companions in Courage (CiC), an organization used to build interactive game rooms in children's hospitals, was founded by LaFontaine as a response to the inspiration he derived while visiting children in hospitals during his 15-year NHL playing career.

"I learned when I played the game of hockey that everything happened quickly," LaFontaine told NHL.com. "You chase the next puck, you try to score the next goal and you got the next bus and plane. But in the game of life, it's a process. You learn to be patient and open your eyes to all the opportunities. The thing about CiC, it really evolved from special relationships I had with kids during my days with the Buffalo Sabres (1991-97)."

The organization also distributes mobile XBox kiosks and features Cisco's online conferencing system, WebEx, which allows young patients to connect to family, friends, schools and teachers anywhere in the world during a hospital stay.

"We're just conduits … the kids are the inspiration," LaFontaine said. "They're the ones behind the rooms. We're only here to provide that room and the ability for them to escape. The one thing very special about these rooms is that they are healing centers. There are games and computers and age-appropriate programming, and it gives a child a chance to escape what they're going through each and every day. Not only does it affect the children, but the families and siblings. The rooms promote healing."

The Foundation has opened 11 Lion's Den rooms throughout North America, including two with the NHL in Montreal and Boston.

"Companions in Courage evolved from children's inspiration and a CiC book and then just took on a life of its own," LaFontaine said. "That first one was the hardest, and a lot of people told me to throw in the towel, but the game of hockey taught me about perseverance, going through my own injuries and bouncing back … so we stuck with it and I was lucky to have a right-hand guy in (CiC Executive Director) Jimmy Johnson, who had the same passion as I did."

For more information on Companions in Courage, visit www.CiC16.org.

-- Mike G. Morreale
LaFontaine went on to recall gold medals won by the U.S. Olympic Team in 1960 and 1980.

"That 1980 team catapulted it to another stratosphere, and then we've continued to grow the game," LaFontaine said. "I love to see that we have a weekend like this, giving us an opportunity to embrace it even more and expose the great game of hockey."

LaFontaine still can recall the day when he was first introduced to the ice.

"I remember going on there with double-runners on and falling all the time," he said. "It looked so easy and I actually began crying to get off the ice. My dad would take my brother and me by the hands and kind of windmill us around with the blades on so that we got that feeling of going really fast. That's when I really had my mind set on learning how to skate."

He was three years old when his father first introduced him to ice on a small outdoor rink in Kirkwood, Mo. He'd eventually start playing pickup hockey games there with his brother, John.

When LaFontaine turned seven, his father was transferred to Waterford, Mich., and that's when he took a stab at organized hockey. He joined a minor-league team with his brother at the Lakeland Ice Arena. In his spare time, he'd also skate with his sister, a figure skater, on Williams Lake.

"I always played with players a year or two older because it made the travel a lot easier since my brother was older and my dad coached his team," LaFontaine said.

He eventually earned a roster spot on the Detroit Compuware team in 1981-82, and as a 16-year-old had 175 goals and 324 points in 79 games while playing for one of the greatest American youth teams of all time.

"The team manager was (current Carolina Hurricanes owner) Peter Karmanos Jr. and Real Turcotte was our head coach," LaFontaine said. "We went 80-2, winning our first 60 games, and seven players from that team were drafted into the NHL. We'd go into Canadian buildings and people would say, 'Who is this American team from Detroit?'

"Looking back, it was the first stepping stone to opening the doors for a lot of young American hockey players from Michigan."

For LaFontaine, it was the start of what ultimately would become a Hall of Fame career. In the three years following LaFontaine's big season with Compuware, he had 104 goals and 234 points in his only season with the Verdun Juniors in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1982-83, was drafted was the New York Islanders with the third pick of the 1983 Entry Draft, represented the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo and was centering John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom in his NHL debut in the fall of 1984.

"If you would have told me that at 15 all these things would have happened within three or four years, I would have thought you were crazy," LaFontaine said. "But things just kind of fell into place with a lot of hard work, good support and great teammates. I was very fortunate to be playing for my country at 18 … that was another stepping stone to the NHL."

LaFontaine is taking many of the lessons he learned at a young age and passing them to the next generation in his role as coach of the Long Island Royals Under-16 Midget National team, based out of Superior Ice Rink in Kings Park, N.Y. In his eight seasons with the team, including three as coach, LaFontaine has seen a greater increase in participation in the sport.

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"I think I have to credit the (NHL) Winter Classic in going back to our roots," LaFontaine said. "I really think that has brought a certain appeal to the game. If there's one thing about our game, there may be a lot indoor facilities, but if you can create ice outside, it's an incredible thing, especially where the climate allows it.

"But there are always other ways to celebrate the game of hockey, by playing stick ball or roller hockey. Obviously wearing skates is a big part of it, but you could still play in warmer-climate areas."

LaFontaine spent 15 seasons in the NHL, with the Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, totaling 468 goals and 1,013 points in 865 games before post-concussion syndrome forced his retirement at the age of 34 on Oct. 12, 1999.

His best statistical season was in Buffalo in the 1992-93 season, when he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy after putting up 53 goals and 148 points -- the most points scored by a U.S.-born player in one season. He was flanked by Alexander Mogilny and Dave Andreychuk before the latter was traded to Toronto.

"I remember Mario (Lemieux) and I were going at it for the scoring race but what was remarkable was that if Dave wasn't traded, we would have probably finished the season as the first line in which each player finished with over 50 goals," LaFontaine said.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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