Fans were literally sleeping through Pat LaFontaine’s shining moment as an Islander.
It came during Game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals – the 1987 Easter Epic – against the Washington Capitals. The game was in its sixth hour and its seventh period and the theme from the Twilight Zone was playing over the organ as the clock approached 2 a.m. A weary LaFontaine had taken oxygen between OT periods to get through the exhaustion, but several fans in the stands at Washington’s Capital Centre had succumbed, falling asleep in their seats.
LaFontaine still remembers the vivid details of his game-winning goal.
He can still see Gord Dineen’s pass hit a stick and land on his backhand before spinning around and shooting – the only time he said he’s spun and shot in his career – in a desperate attempt to get the puck on net. He heard the puck hit the post and prepared to skate back down the ice, until he saw Capitals goalie Bob Mason drop to one knee in defeat.
LaFontaine recalled many surreal moments as he greeted the media Tuesday morning, ahead of being honored by the Islanders at center ice that night. He spoke of being a teenager in Michigan and watching John Tonelli pass to Bobby Nystrom on May 24, 1980, only to center the duo four years later in his first NHL game.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be centering John Tonelli and Bobby Nystrom in my first game,” LaFontaine said. “I had to pinch myself every day because it exceeded my wildest dreams.”
LaFontaine scored 566 points (287 goals, 279 assists) in 530 games for the Islanders over eight seasons with the team. As a 19-year-old he learned from what he called the greatest team in sports, citing the Islanders dynasty roster, Head Coach Al Arbour and General Manager Bill Torrey.
He said Arbour taught him what it meant to truly earn your ice and that left a life-long impression on LaFontaine, both on the ice and off of it.
“I left this game with gratitude and it was a privilege for me to play because nothing early on was handed to me. I thank Al Arbour for that,” LaFontaine said. “I always joke with the kids, if you can pass Al Arbour’s mental boot camp for two weeks, you can play 15 years in the league.”
From the players, he learned attention to detail and hard work, two key factors in their Cup runs, but the most important thing he learned was the importance of giving back to the community.
“Each guy was involved in doing something in the community and giving back,” LaFontaine said. “That’s something I learned early on – the position you’re in as a player and as an athlete and the difference you can make and to always understand and recognize that and try to give back in the community where you play.”
LaFontaine still carries that responsibility of giving back, as the founder of the Companions in Courage Foundation, which builds interactive playrooms in hospitals across North America.
While his reach extends beyond the shores of Long Island, LaFontaine remains close with the community. His wife is from Huntington, his son grew up playing for the Long Island Royals and he continues to make a life here.
“I’ve been on Long Island for 31 years,” LaFontaine said. “Long Island is near and dear to me. This is our home. This is where it started for me.”
So as the Islanders continued to celebrate and honor their past, LaFontaine got his chance to say goodbye to Nassau Coliseum. And unlike his shining moment on Easter Sunday in 1987, everyone was awake, alert and hung on his every word.