IT'S PATTY'S DAY
By JOHN VOGL
News Sports Reporter
Pat LaFontaine spent six special though sometimes painful years with
the Buffalo Sabres; tonight he returns to HSBC Arena to watch his
name and number raised to the rafters
There's a tendency on tribute days to overstate the achievements of
the honoree. It can seem like the next step is canonization.
Some days, though, even the flowery speeches fall short of conveying
the impact of the person. Today is one of those days.
Canonization? In Buffalo this month, there are two St. Patty's Days.
Pat LaFontaine returns to Western New York today, visiting a few of
the places that have made him a cherished member of the community.
He'll be at Women and Children's Hospital, where he enhanced
countless lives through his laughs, tears, time and financial
backing. He'll drive by Memorial Auditorium, where hundreds of
thousands of fans were able to stargaze at his magical plays, a place
where he erased darkness and eventually turned out the lights.
Then he'll be at HSBC Arena, whose era he ushered in but a place he
was able to enjoy for only a few moments. When he leaves the building
again, however, he'll never really be gone. People will look up to
the arena rafters and see the name and number of a Buffalo legend.
The Sabres tonight are retiring the No. 16 of LaFontaine, who spent
six special though sometimes painful years with the team.
"To go back and reminisce about my time in Buffalo and share that
with friends and family, it's going to be exciting," LaFontaine said
this week from his home on Long Island. "It doesn't happen too often.
I look at the names of the guys who are up there, it's obviously a
very special and prestigious honor to have your number and jersey
It's a first for LaFontaine. He's in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the
United States Hockey Hall of Fame and Sports Illustrated last month
named the St. Louis native the best American-born player ever. But
this is the first time the number he wore will never be donned again.
His time in Buffalo was electric. The 41-year-old was a Sabre from
1991 to 1997. Three seasons featured at least 40 goals, including the
1992-93 campaign, the standard for every player who skates in town.
He scored 53 times with Sabres records of 95 assists and 148 points.
But it wasn't just the points he generated with Alexander Mogilny,
Dave Andreychuk and Dale Hawerchuk. The season, coupled with his
amazing seven-game run of goals in the previous year's playoff, made
the Sabres matter again, raised the hockey excitement level in
Buffalo to peaks it has rarely seen.
"It seemed like when I came to Buffalo it clicked right away, whether
it was Rick Jeanneret and his calls [of La-la-la-LaFontaine] or the
community," LaFontaine said. "They just embraced my family and
myself, and really made us feel at home. And it was an instant
connection with the players that really seemed to filter through
myself and Alex and Dave Andreychuk."
LaFontaine's first season in Buffalo, featuring 46 goals and an
October 1991 trade from the New York Islanders - with whom he spent
eight goal-filled years - can even be experienced at the Buffalo &
Erie County Historical Society Museum. LaFontaine suffered a broken
jaw, and his return was helped by Buffalo Forge, which created a
protective mask that is on display in the museum.
"People don't realize how tough of a player he was," said Sabres head
equipment trainer Rip Simonick, with the team since the
beginning. "He never wanted to let anybody know that he was hurting.
Even when he had the concussion he fought it right to the end."
LaFontaine's '93-94 and '94-95 seasons were trimmed by knee surgery.
His final season in Buffalo ended after just 13 games because of a
major concussion in October 1996 that led to him being traded the
following year, as he and the team disputed his health. He finished
his career with the New York Rangers, their second-leading scorer
behind Wayne Gretzky but retiring after 67 games because of another
"I think you go through different phases in your career and your
life, and you have a chance to look back and reflect," said
LaFontaine, who has no residual effects from his injuries. "I learned
a lot as a player playing with some great players on the New York
Islanders, obviously going to the Stanley Cup finals my first year,
the team that won four Cups. I learned a lot and was able to take
that with me to Buffalo.
"The prime years were spent right there in Buffalo. Those teams and
wins and goals and assists are so special, but I also look at the off-
ice, and I learned so much from so many special people."
A fixture in hospitals
Buffalo is where his continuing charitable works started, where he
learned the philanthropic skills that evolved into his Companions in
Courage Foundation. While recovering from the knee injury, he was
asked to visit children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
"They said it would be a big thrill for them to meet a Buffalo
Sabre," he recalled, "so I went there and tried to put a smile on
their face, and developed some friendships and special relationships.
Their courage and inspiration had a profound effect on me."
He was soon a fixture in hospitals, visiting children and their
families at all hours to supply inspiration and smiles in the midst
of surgeries and tragedies. When not with his wife, Marybeth, and
children Sarah, Brianna and Daniel, he spends most of his time with
his Companions in Courage Foundation. In addition to spiritual
support, it raises funds to build interactive playrooms and safe
havens in children's hospitals throughout the country.
"It's so hard to make people understand how genuinely kind he is,"
said Elsie Dawe, executive director for the Foundations of Kaleida
Health. "I did his keynote speech when he retired from the Rangers.
They were looking for specific amounts of money - which was a lot of
money - but it was hard to do that because he would pay for a
funeral, or besides paying big bills he would do amazing things like
buying a Labrador puppy for a little girl with cancer. It's hard to
quantify what somebody did all the time."
Turning out the lights
LaFontaine's premier hockey memory relates to the closing of Memorial
Auditorium, not for leaving the intimate building but for the people
who were there. He grew up idolizing Gilbert Perreault, and he formed
a close bond with Sabres owner and founder Seymour H. Knox III.
Sabres legends skated a lap each with a puck then passed off, and
LaFontaine was the final player. He said he'll never forget waving to
the crowd, shooting the puck into the net as the horn blared one last
time and the only light was a ray shining on the puck.
Knox was dying of cancer then, and LaFontaine made plans to have the
puck retrieved. He arranged to have it made into part of a
picturesque plaque, and it was presented to Knox at the end-of-season
"When I retired as a New York Ranger," LaFontaine said, "[Seymour's
wife] Jean Knox came down - she's such a special lady - and she
said, "I have something. This was a special item that Seymour put
next to his favorite chair and would look at it and talk about it
before he passed off. I know he would want you to have that.'
"It was the plaque with the last puck shot in the Aud. It's something
that I look at on pretty much a daily basis, and it puts a big smile
on my face."
A smile is fitting, since it's the thing LaFontaine gives to nearly
every person he meets.
"He does things that he doesn't really have to do, but he does them
because he is what he is," Simonick said. "He's No. 16."