November 4, 2003
TORONTO (CP) - Pat LaFontaine beamed a smile when he grasped the irony of it all.
He played midget hockey in Detroit the year Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings, he played for the New York Islanders when Brian Kilrea was an assistant coach, he and Grant Fuhr were Buffalo Sabres teammates, and fate weaved those connections all the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame when the four were inducted together Monday. "To be here with these three guys, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world," LaFontaine said during interviews after the four received their rings and blazers.
LaFontaine, who helped the United States win the World Cup tournament in 1996, was a crafty centre who scored 468 goals and amassed 1,013 points in an NHL career began in 1984 with the New York Islanders and was cut short in 1998 by concussions. He is not bitter it ended too soon.
"Guys who have gone through post-concussion syndrome will tell you it changes your perspective on life," LaFontaine explained. "You don't have as much control as you think you do.
"You reflect and you learn to appreciate the little things . . . and truly embrace what you have."
LaFontaine, 38, is so positive about life that he could inspire a telephone pole.
He left his St. Louis home to play midget hockey in Detroit for Compuware in 1982 when Ilitch was funding a rival minor hockey organization through his Little Caesar's Pizza empire.
Ilitch then bought the Red Wings, a terrible team with only 2,100 season ticket holders, for $8 million US and turned it into a three-time NHL champion.
"I sometimes wonder how it all happened," Ilitch, 74, said of the Hockeytown culture. "But we brought in colourful players and the fans related to them immediately.
"Our players and the blue-collar people in our community could communicate very easily and it didn't have to be verbal. It was the players we had, that was part of it, and we had good marketing people" who came up with the Hockeytown tag.
LaFontaine went to Verdun and overtook Mario Lemieux to win the Quebec junior scoring title in 1983. He was named Canadian junior player of the year - a rare feat for an American.
Kilrea, who during a brief NHL fling as a player scored the first goal in Los Angeles Kings history, was well aware of LaFontaine's scoring exploits because he was coaching the Ottawa major junior club at the time.
Ilitch's Red Wings, drafting fourth in 1983, were going to select LaFontaine. But the Islanders, drafting third, took him. Detroit then took Steve Yzerman.
Kilrea joined the Islanders as an assistant coach when LaFontaine was breaking into the NHL. Kilrea was being groomed to take over the top job upon Al Arbour's retirement but it didn't work out because the higher-ups decided Kilrea was too close to the players.
Besides, Kilrea preferred living in Ottawa and developing players at the junior level so after two years on Long Island he returned to the 67s. He has since passed the 1,000-win mark, which was enough to get the highly-respected coach into the Hall's builders' category with Ilitch.
"I feel like I'm representing a lot of amateur coaches who prepare players for the NHL," said Kilrea, 69. "I'm here mainly because of the players who played for me. If it weren't for their efforts, Brian Kilrea isn't here."
LaFontaine and Fuhr were Sabres teammates from 1993 to 1995.
"Patty and I became good friends when we played together in Buffalo," said Fuhr. "It's special to go into the Hockey Hall of Fame but to go in with a friend is extra special."
Fuhr earned five Stanley Cup rings stopping pucks for the Edmonton Oilers. He had a great glove hand, and supplied the big-moment saves that enabled teammates to spend most of their time in the opposition's end.
He's the first black player to be inducted but downplays the fact in deference to Willie O'Ree, who in 1957 was the first black player in the NHL and who now is involved in the league's minorities programs.
"It's a special honour but it's not something I ever really grew up with," explained Fuhr, 41. "I mean, having got to know Willie and all the things Willie went through, by the time I got to play all the doors had been opened.
"I was just another player by the time I got there."
Like LaFontaine, he was much more than "just another player" by the time he left.