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LaFontaine's latest challenge is youth hockey coach

by Mike G. Morreale
In an effort to capture a behind-the-scenes look at the Long Island Royals Midget National team's 2011-12 season, Pat LaFontaine has allowed unprecedented access to, "NHL Live" and "NHL: On The Fly" this season. Stay tuned for more information on NHL Network's coverage of LaFontaine and the Royals.

Beginning today and continuing each Monday throughout the season, "Making of a Royal" will feature details of the previous week, what's to come and profile pieces of players and coaches on the club. In addition to various video shoots throughout Long Island and other regional tournament venues, the players will be interviewed and their stories brought to life.

LaFontaine will provide with a weekly blog detailing much of the team's activity, in addition to offering insightful anecdotes about the group. LaFontaine hopes these experiences will be a good teaching tool for other coaches, players and parents involved in youth hockey across the world.

'Making of a Royal' blog

Is there any doubt that when five-time NHL All-Star Pat LaFontaine is on a mission, he's virtually unstoppable?

He proved it during a remarkable Hall of Fame career in the NHL and again in the incredible work he's done with his Companions in Courage Foundation, which has provided a tremendous boost of motivation for hospital-ridden children throughout North America.

Three years ago, LaFontaine was handed the keys to another significant role, as the coach of the Long Island Royals Midget National team, based out of Superior Ice Rink in Kings Park, N.Y. The team is comprised of 22 players -- 13 forwards, seven defenseman and two goalies.

"You are preparing these kids for those next levels and teaching them all different aspects of the game, so I think the big thing is teaching," LaFontaine told "A lot of times coaches are screaming and yelling … we just try and do our best to teach the game and reinforce the positive things like character building. We're trying to develop these players individually and as a team to get to the next level. But we're also trying to develop them as people and good role models off the ice."

Not surprisingly, LaFontaine and his assistant coach, former New York Islander Steve Webb, have become role models for the 15- and 16-year-olds.

"One of the things I do believe in is you can't push kids too fast," LaFontaine said. "The bodies, minds and emotions of these kids are still developing. There are a lot of things they need to work on and I'm a big believer in constant learning. It's important to give kids that confidence in a challenging environment where they can develop and play at a high level."

Long Island Royals team roster

Goalies -- Matt Atwell, Freeport (N.Y.); Peter Fosso, Levittown (N.Y.).

Defense -- Aidan Salerno, Long Beach (N.Y.); J.J. Hickey, Commack (N.Y.); Cory Gottfried, Port Washington (N.Y.); James Gobetz, St. James (N.Y.); Matt Galioto, Kings Park (N.Y.); Brandon Fortunato, North Hills (N.Y.); Brent D'Iorio, Huntington (N.Y.).

Forwards -- Joseph Anile, Oyster Bay (N.Y.); Justin Bailey, Williamsville (N.Y.); Scott Donahue, Commack (N.Y.); Joseph Fallon, West Islip (N.Y.); Dylan Holze, Lynbrook (N.Y.); Nicholas Hutchison, Hicksville (N.Y.); David Kleyman, Brooklyn (N.Y.); Daniel LaFontaine, Lloyd Harbor (N.Y.); Michael Marnell, Huntington Station (N.Y.); Zachery Shields, Old Westbury (N.Y.); Jake Sontag, Roslyn Heights (N.Y.); Adam Tracey, Sleepy Hollow (N.Y.); Matthew Ward, East Islip (N.Y.).

Head coach: Pat LaFontaine
Assistant coaches: Steve Webb, Scott Donahue
Managers: Bruce Sontag, Rob Hutchison
LaFontaine had been an assistant for the Royals for five seasons before replacing Jack Greig prior to the 2009-10 season. Greig was coaching two teams at the time and approached LaFontaine with the idea of taking over as the National Team coach.

LaFontaine admitted Webb, who racked up 532 penalty minutes in 321 NHL games spanning nine seasons, actually has become "the softie" of the two. Meanwhile, LaFontaine, who totaled 552 penalty minutes in 865 games spanning 15 seasons, has become tougher.

"So we've switched roles, but in a good way," LaFontaine said, laughing. "We play off each other very well."

One player, in fact, who has taken a particular liking to Webb is LaFontaine's 16-year-old son, Daniel.

"He's always asking me, 'Dad, is Coach Webb going to be there?'"  LaFontaine said.

LaFontaine's first order of business when he became coach was reaching out to Maj. Dave Andersen, a former Marine, part-time hockey coach and the founder of Boot Camp Hockey.

"We actually lived in a hockey rink for a week and everything was structured and regimented," LaFontaine said. "The kids wore the same uniforms and exercised every morning following a 6:30 a.m. wakeup. It took the kids out of their comfort zone … they had no cell phones, no line of communication. We played a lot of hockey, had chalk talks, went over systems, watched videos and spent a lot of time together as a team.

"Maj. Andersen said you will arrive there as individuals and leave as a unit, and I feel that was the start of these kids coming together as a team."

Each summer since, LaFontaine has arranged for the players to attend Russian Hockey School with instructors Boris Bykovsky and Valeri Zelepukin, at Superior Ice Rink, in preparation for the new season.

"I also called in Chris Reichart, who was our strength and conditioning coach in Buffalo, to speak to the kids," LaFontaine said. "He spent the whole day talking to the kids about nutrition and provided a strengthening program."

LaFontaine said he does take experiences from his playing days as a teen for Detroit Compuware. As a 16-year-old during the 1981-82 season, he scored 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."

LaFontaine always keeps the players guessing when it comes to practices, and he stresses a fun but challenging environment.

"I like to mix it up and keep them hungry," he said. "You need to let them enjoy what they're doing but never let them know what's in front of them. It's always one shift at a time, one game at a time."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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