By Bob Matuszak
Pat LaFontaine's hockey journey has taken him to many different places throughout the world. That jaunt will culminate when his jersey makes one more trip -- an up-close visit to the HSBC Arena rafters.
LaFontaine, the Sabres captain from 1992-97, will become the sixth player to have his number permanently retired by the team when his No. 16 is honored during a pregame ceremony prior to Buffalo's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in March.
"It's a real special thing," said LaFontaine, whose sweater number will join those of former franchise greats Gil Perreault, Rick Martin, Rene Robert, Danny Gare and Tim Horton high atop the arena. "The fact I've been out of the game for a while now, you appreciate it more than ever. I've had a chance to reflect about my time in Buffalo and all the memories, and really take it in."
The Michigan native finished with 385 points in his seven seasons with the Sabres, and continues to hold numerous club records, including an eye-popping 148 points registered in 1992-93.
Overall, LaFontaine recorded 468 goals and 1,013 points in 865 NHL games during his 15-year career. He also made five appearances at the league's annual All-Star game, notched two 50-goal campaigns, two 100-point seasons, won the Bill Masterton Trophy, and was inducted into the hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
"When you followed the NHL, 'LaFontaine' was a name that jumped out at you," Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller
said. "I obviously paid attention to the great players, and he's definitely one that stands out. So I recognize how much he means to Buffalo."
Miller could have easily finished his thought with the words "both on and off the ice," as LaFontaine's humanitarian work in and around western New York touched many lives, both young and old.
"My life has just been wonderful having known him, being with him, and having him be part of my life," said Elsie Dawe, the executive director of the Women's and Children's Hospital Foundation. "He truly is a role model."
During his time in Buffalo, LaFontaine took a special interest in the hospital, making sure he carved out time in his hectic schedule to make numerous visits in order to lift the sick kids' spirits.
"You see many in all the different sports that turn the cold shoulder and people that are just kind of around. But he always went that extra yard for everybody, whether it be for charity, teammates, or fans." said defenseman Jay McKee, who played with LaFontaine when he came up with the Sabres in 1995. "He's just very polite, down to earth and an easy to talk to person."
"In this area there are a lot of young hockey players," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff added. "His actions on the ice and off the ice are ideal for any young player. He typifies how you want to act."
On the ice, LaFontaine's generosity captivated many hockey fans, especially the ones along the Niagara frontier, after he was acquired by Buffalo from the New York Islanders in a blockbuster trade in 1991 that also involved Pierre Turgeon, the top player selected in the 1987 draft.
In his record-breaking 1992-93 season, LaFontaine and winger Alexander Mogilny teamed up to produce an electrifying year of offense that has yet to be matched in the team's 36-year history. LaFontaine set a single-season high of 95 assists, with Mogilny being the beneficiary of most of those helpers, scoring a team-record 76 goals.
"That was the year where the chemistry was just hard to explain," LaFontaine said. "Things just clicked. When I got the puck I just looked for Alex streaking up. That was a great time."
LaFontaine finally retired in the summer of 1998 after he sustained his sixth concussion while a member of the New York Rangers, and immediately began his new job -- full-time husband and parent to his wife Marybeth and children Sarah (15), Brianna (13) and Daniel (10).
Though his career is long over, LaFontaine continues to add to his legacy with his Companions in Courage Foundation, which brings smiles to children's faces throughout the country. Those smiles are as big and bright as LaFontaine's, the eternal optimist.
"I always chased the next puck, went to the next game, and caught the next plane my whole career," he said. "It was always set out for you and you just went after it. But since I've been retired, I've just sat back and just watched things evolve. So I don't know what is next for me. But whatever it is, I'll be ready for it."
As will we. Thank you, Pat!