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My Hockey Life: Pat LaFontaine

As NHL shares Declaration of Principles, Hall of Famer recounts crossroads he faced, people who shaped him

by Pat LaFontaine / Special to NHL.com

Hockey has given me so much, but now it's about giving back. I am part of the development efforts by the NHL and NHLPA to grow the game, and every day I have the honor of speaking with people at all levels of the sport. What excites me most about these conversations is the consistency with which people talk about what they love about the game. They appreciate the speed, skill and artistry the sport demands athletically; but, more often, they talk about the people and values that embody the game. As we share the Declaration of Principles with the global hockey community, I wanted to share what the game has meant to me.

Many people who follow the game might know my hockey story.

The highlights -- the goals, the assists, the wins, the near misses, the injuries and triumphant returns -- are all there, not only in hockey fans' memories, but in articles and videos housed across the internet.

 

[RELATED: This is Hockey | NHL, NHLPA unveil Declaration of Principles | Pat LaFontaine: 100 Greatest NHL Players | Pope Francis extols Declaration of Principles]

 

Those, though, are merely snapshots of my life in hockey.

Life, in or out of hockey, is all about crossroads. The decisions we make -- or are made for us -- end up defining who we become and the story we write.

Hockey, and its values and lessons, started at home early from my mom and dad. Hockey became a sport I loved to play when I was a young boy. I've been very fortunate to have the game reinforce those values many times over throughout my life.

The sport has brought me happiness beyond anything I could've dreamed. It introduced me to my wife of 30 years, Marybeth, and provided for my family. It has given me lifelong memories and friendships that I cherish to this day.

But for me, as stated in the Declaration of Principles, "Hockey's greatest value is the role it plays in the development of character and life skills."

Hockey has played an important role in the evolution of my character and life skills, ever since I was introduced to the game. When looking back over my life in hockey, I can't help but think of the mystical journey and how everything that ultimately happens to you prepares you for what is to come next, whether we realize it or not. As I share today the stories of the crossroads I have come to in my life, there are core value words that come to mind.

 

Passion, Perseverance

I was 4 years old when my parents introduced me and my brother, John, to skating at an outdoor rink in Kirkwood, Missouri. It was an abject failure. I couldn't skate and I kept falling. My brother took to skating right out of the box. I was jealous of him and the others who made it look so easy. That afternoon ended in tears.

The next year, I returned, once again clamping on the double runners and trying to master the art of staying upright. This time, progress was being made and then the magic happened. Forty-seven years later, I can still remember the moment I fell in love with skating. I was on those double runners, taking tentative, choppy strides when my father skated past me, took my small hand in his much bigger one and whipped me down the ice.

Suddenly, I was flying, my blades cutting through the ice faster than ever, the wind in my face. It was an overwhelming sense of speed, pure exhilaration. I never wanted that moment to end. 

What if I never went back to the rink after that first bad experience? What if my father didn't take my hand in that moment? What if I only plodded along, and skating became something I simply did instead of something I loved with all my heart?

My life would be unimaginably different. Not necessarily worse, but far different.

Those crossroads moments have happened throughout my life and conspired to deliver me to this very moment.

If you think about it, they have happened to you as well; maybe inside of hockey, certainly outside of the game.

Here are a few of the ones that define who I am today:

 

Gratitude, Adversity

I'm 12 years old. I love all sports, and they are a constant in my life: baseball, basketball, golf, water skiing, track and especially hockey.

One day, while running track, I have trouble breathing and am rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. I was petrified.

I took a bunch of tests and then the doctor came to see me. I'll never forget what he said.

"Well, Pat, you might as well hit the books. Your athletic days are over."

He told me I had exercise-induced asthma and I would never be able to play sports again. I was crushed. What would I do without sports, without hockey?

I spent that whole summer indoors, in front of a fan, wheezing, while watching my friends outside compete in track, baseball and basketball.

It was a nightmare.

That awful summer was just about over when someone suggested to my mom that I see an allergist. Before school started, I went to the doctor, took a battery of tests and found out that I was allergic to just about everything -- grass, pollen, mold, ragweed, dust and a variety of foods.

The doctor started me on allergy shots, and I was back at the rink before the school year began.

I had my life back! I never loved sports more than I did at that very moment. I have never taken a day of skating for granted since. That winter was extra special, and I felt a renewed appreciation skating outdoors behind our house out on Williams Lake. Many of my fondest childhood memories were skating and playing shinny with my brother, sister and the whole neighborhood.

Overcoming that adversity was one of the best lessons a 12-year-old could ever learn.

 

Commitment, Acceptance

The NHL today is ripe with so many young stars who were born in the United States. Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel, Jack Eichel and Max Pacioretty are a handful of great American players who come to mind.

That wasn't the case in 1982. There was no set path for American players, who remained a rarity in the League.

In the Canadian Major Junior League, Americans were a bit of an afterthought. The players of consequence there were coming from Canada and were slotted into one of three leagues (Western, Ontario, Quebec) based on where they lived.

Back then, an American teenager was considered a free agent, eligible to play in the Canadian junior league of his choice. I had some success in my midget career, but was still looked at by scouts as a bit of a curiosity.

Yet, I was drafted into two leagues: Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League and Verdun of the Quebec league.

My favorite players growing up were Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault, each a star in the Quebec league before reaching the NHL, so I did consider that.

Belleville recruited me really hard. At the time, I only knew about the Cornwall Royals and Gord Wood, a gentleman and tremendous scout who recruited me for the Royals and showed a strong interest in having me follow in the footsteps of Dale Hawerchuk and Doug Gilmour. I committed to play for him. They picked sixth, though, and Belleville picked fourth, so everything changed.

One night, I was asked to meet with one of the new owners of the Bulls just outside of Belleville. As I am waiting, a car pulls up, the door opens and there is Wayne Gretzky, the star of the Edmonton Oilers and part owner of Belleville. We would have some epic battles in the NHL in the near future, but now I am a teenager deciding on my next hockey stop and Wayne Gretzky is trying to woo me to his team.

It was amazing to meet him and we laughed about our first meeting years later as New York Rangers teammates, but I was flattered and nervous that night as Gretz made a pitch for me to come join his team.

At that moment, I was at a figurative and literal crossroads. It was difficult to turn down the Belleville opportunity, but going to Verdun in the Quebec league changed my life.

Video: Hockey unites to launch Declaration of Principles

That year with Verdun was magical. I became the first United States-born player to win the CHL Player of the Year Award and I scored more than 100 goals. I dueled with Mario Lemieux, who was starring for Laval and would go on to a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the end, our team won the President's Cup, the championship of the Quebec league, and celebrated the win at the Montreal Forum in front of 17,000 fans. The city of Montreal and its fans will never be forgotten for the way they treated a 17-year-old American kid.

It was an amazing experience for me.

 

Destiny, Love

This crossroads happened without me even knowing about it at first.

It was Oct. 1, 1981. I was likely attending class at Waterford Kettering High School. I'm sure my mind was preoccupied with my next hockey game at Lakeland Arena.

I had no idea that an event on Long Island that day would define, to a large degree, who I was to become.

The New York Islanders were a powerhouse, having won the Stanley Cup twice in a row. But their general manager, Bill Torrey, was always looking for ways to get better. That is why he was known as The Architect.

The 1983 NHL Draft was being projected as very deep at the top. I was among a group of players expected to make a major impact. The Islanders, as the class of the League, weren't expected to be selecting a player from that top-end group.

That all changed that day in 1981, when Torrey made a trade with the Colorado Rockies, sending defenseman Bob Lorimer to the Rockies for their first-round pick in 1983.

The Rockies relocated for the 1982-83 season and became the New Jersey Devils. That first season in New Jersey was difficult; they finished with the third-worst record in the League (17-19-14), meaning the Islanders had the No. 3 pick in my draft year.

The Minnesota North Stars, after a trade with the Penguins, selected Brian Lawton, a center playing for Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, with the No. 1 pick.

The Hartford Whalers selected Sylvain Turgeon, playing with Hull in the Quebec league, at No. 2.

That left Torrey with a decision to make: He could take me or Stevie Yzerman from Peterborough. Guys like Cam Neely, Tom Barrasso and John MacLean were also available.

As I was sitting with my mom and dad, as well as my agent, Don Meehan, in the stands at the Montreal Forum, the site of the draft that year, Torrey stepped to the podium and called my name, changing my life at that very moment.

Soon after, I joined one of the greatest teams of all time and had a chance to learn from immortals like Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom, John Tonelli, Ed Westfall, Al Arbour and so many more.

Off the ice, I met the love of my life, Marybeth, on Long Island, and that also served as the catalyst to our three wonderful kids.

Had Torrey never made that deal in 1981, who knows where my career lands? This not only impacted my career, but my life too.

 

Mentor, Care

This story starts when our oldest child, my daughter Sarah, was born. I was having some success with the Islanders, and it was an amazing time for me and Marybeth.

I wanted to savor every moment of my new life. Staying up late and helping out with feedings and to support being a new parent was exciting, but also exhausting.

One time at the morning skate, I'm skating around the ice and my coach, Arbour, comes up to me and asks, "How is little Sarah doing?" I tell him how amazing everything is and how much I am enjoying fatherhood, and he says, "Well, you haven't been playing well for the past month so I want you to come see me in my office after the skate."

Now, nobody ever wants to get called into the coach's office. I go up to Al's office after the skate and the coach takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes like the weight of the world is on him. He starts telling me a story about how some of his greatest memories in his life are from when his kids were young and he didn't have a game on Sunday. He could stay home and eat cereal with them and have the kids jump into bed to watch TV with him.

But then he says I need to find a way to balance those times with my time as a hockey player.

"You need to get your rest and preparation the night before games," he says. He needed me to be better, but not at the expense of my family.

Al's job was to coach me and that is what he did in that moment. Like all the great coaches I have had in my career -- my dad, Arbour, Teddy Nolan to name a few -- he did it in a way that made a lasting impact.

Talk about a moment of character. He taught me the way to be a better player and a better family man. It showed me that Al not only cared about me as a player, but as a person.

It shaped the way I have balanced my career and my family ever since.

 

Courage, Compassion

Early in the 1993-94 season, I injured my right knee. It required surgery and cost me all but 16 games of that season.

At the time, I thought getting my knee reconstructed was the end of the world. My wife told me that, while I didn't expect this injury, I could treat it as an opportunity to learn more about myself.

That's exactly what happened, but not in the way I expected.

While I was in the hospital, I used to go to the children's ward to visit the kids who were fighting battles far more important than mine. I thought I knew what courage was. Then I met all these kids, and I had a new understanding of the word.

One young man struck a special chord with me.

I used to play video games with Robert Schwegler, who was 12 years old and battling a rare form of leukemia. We played video hockey every week and, every week, he would beat me. I was always the Islanders or Rangers, and Robert was always the Buffalo Sabres. He was always excited to be MogilnyAndreychuk, Hawerchuk and LaFontaine. Over the four months we played, I only tied him once.

One day, as I was leaving his room taking off my cap and gown because Robert was in isolation, a nurse stopped me, grabbed my arm and said, "Thank you."

"No need to thank me," I said. "Robert's my friend!"

"I don't think you understand," she said, and then she started to really cry. "These visits are the only time this young boy smiles."

In light of that, my knee injury became trivial, and the mystical power the game holds over each of us came into sharper focus.

Sadly, Robert died five months later, but I remain in touch with his family to this day. My charitable endeavor, the Companions in Courage Foundation, was also born from that experience and has grown to provide video-game stations and playrooms in 20 hospitals across North America and touches more than 60,000 kids per year in part because of Robert's inspiration.

I cherish the memory of the Roberts I have been blessed to meet in my life. They have helped provide the proper perspective whenever I have been at a crossroads.

Now I hope you understand what I mean about crossroads and how the decisions we make when facing them can define us.

First and foremost, because of hockey, my journey through life has been spiritually rewarding and uplifting. There has been plenty of pain and suffering, and I have been forced to travel to some very dark places. Those tough times and experiences have also made me stronger in spirit and given me an even deeper appreciation for the hockey community and the well-being of the game.

 

Teamwork, Leadership

Video: Pat LaFontaine dazzled his way to 468 career goals

I scored my goals in life, to me it's all about the assists! Watching someone else score their goals is what it's all about.

I know firsthand the power of assists, and it is far more important than any of the goals I have scored. I am sure that if you reflect on your own life, you can identify crossroads moments that undeniably set you on a path to your destiny.

They say true leaders of sport are servants of the game who give back, making it better than when they found it. I want to thank the thousands of people who selflessly help make the game better every day because of what they give back.

The entire hockey community has spoken, and the Declaration of Principles has evolved into a platform to build and grow the game. The leaders of hockey have heard and declared their support at all levels. It's an exciting time for hockey and its future. By living the tenets of the Declaration of Principles, I truly believe it will ensure the well-being of the game we all love so much.

To all who are a part of this very important initiative, we appreciate you and your efforts to make a difference!

Thank you, hockey! Merci, hockey!

Video: Thank You Hockey

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