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Youth hockey was a stepping stone for LaFontaine

by Mike G. Morreale /
Pat LaFontaine's love for ice hockey began similarly to any other warm-blooded American with a dream of making it big one day.

Well, almost.

"I remember going on the ice with double-runners on and falling all the time," LaFontaine told "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 3 years old when his father first introduced him to ice on a small outdoor rink in Kirkwood, Missouri. He'd eventually start playing pickup hockey games there with his brother, John.

When LaFontaine turned 7, 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 would eventually earn a roster spot on the Detroit Compuware team in 1981-82 and, as a 16-year-old, 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."

For LaFontaine, it was the start of what would ultimately become a Hall of Fame career. In the three years following LaFontaine's season with Compuware, he contributed 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 with the No. 3 pick by the New York Islanders in 1983, represented the U.S. at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo and was centering John Tonelli and Bob Nystrom in his NHL debut in the spring of '84.

Not too shabby, eh?

"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 admits not feeling any pressure in his Olympic debut in Yugoslavia despite the fact the Americans were following in the footsteps of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" gold medalists.

"It was just a tremendous honor to represent your country," he said. "We played over 60 games, including the Olympics, so you couldn't put a price tag on the experience alone. I think anybody trying to back that gold-medal team (of 1980) would have had a big feat in front of them. I think we might have peaked a little sooner than we would have hoped, but it was a great opportunity."

Team USA would actually finish a disappointing seventh (2-2-2) but LaFontaine was one of the team's best performers with 5 goals and 8 points.

It was one of several memorable moments for LaFontaine, who spent 15 seasons in the NHL with the Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. He'd produce 468 goals and 1,013 points before post-concussion syndrome forced his retirement at the age of 34 on Oct. 12, 1999.

LaFontaine's famous goal in the fourth overtime of Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Playoffs that gave the Islanders a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinal round is one he'll never forget. The game, dubbed the "Easter Epic," began on Saturday and concluded just before 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

"We were down, 3-1, in that series and our backs were against the wall but we found a way," LaFontaine said. "Nobody would have thought we'd be playing until 2 a.m. I still run into people 24 years later telling me where they were and how a lot of them thought it was a replay of the game when they turned the television on later that night."

His best statistical season was in Buffalo during the 1992-93 campaign when he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy after scoring 148 points (53 goals) -- the most ever by an American-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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