The Sabres sent him to the Mayo Clinic. An earlier MRI had indicated he had suffered no brain damage from the concussion. The more extensive tests at Mayo changed the diagnosis. He had suffered a bruise on the frontal lobe of his brain, the area responsible for personality and moods. The Oct. 17 concussion was the final blow, but the four earlier concussions (the first in 1990) had contributed to his condition.
"Do you feel like somebody ripped out all of your enthusiasm?" a neurologist at Mayo asked.
"Yes!" LaFontaine almost shouted. "Where'd it go?"
The neurologist used the analogy of a car operating on a reserve tank of gas. LaFontaine had been working on the reserve tank for a while. The final concussion had emptied the tank. The pieces of his memory, of his personality, that were missing would return, the tank would be refilled sometime in the future, but the only treatment was rest. The brain had to heal. LaFontaine would have to wait inside this new self for his old self to return. This would not be easy. "I had difficulty coping with the smallest things," he says. "I couldn't even watch a hockey game on television. I'd try, but the speed was too much for me. I couldn't keep up with what was happening."
One miserable day followed another. Marybeth and Pat's eldest daughter, Sarah, who was six at the time, had an incident on a school bus. One of the other kids told her, "Your daddy's stupid. All his brains fell out on the ice." She came home in tears. The Sabres suggested that maybe the family should take a trip south, try the good weather. They went to Disney World. Even the tamest rides, the kiddie rides, made Pat's head hurt. Marybeth said he looked green.
When he came back to Buffalo, though, he started to feel better. This was in mid-February. The tank was refilling. The enthusiasm was coming back. LaFontaine started skating again. He started hanging around the Sabres again. At first he felt like a stranger—"like when you go back to high school four years after you graduate and everything seems changed," he says—but the tank kept refilling. He felt more and more at ease. He began participating in noncontact drills. He started thinking about the playoffs.
"I was never going to do anything foolish," says LaFontaine. "My family always was first, hockey second. If I was ever told that I would be at a greater risk than anyone else playing the game, then I was prepared to quit. I'd had 14 years in the league, and I was prepared to go home. To retire."
The medical clearance didn't come until the summer. He took more tests than a prospective astronaut. The results from his doctors indicated he was fine. Three neurosurgeons told him he would be at no greater risk of long-term repercussions than anyone else who had suffered a first concussion. He said he was ready to rejoin the Sabres.
The Sabres weren't ready for him. They had thought he would retire, and their doctors suggested he should. The money they would have had to set aside to pay him—$4.8 million—had mostly been spent. If he had retired, insurance would have paid 80% of the contract, and Buffalo would have paid the rest.
On Sept. 29, five days before the Rangers' season opener, Pat was traded to New York for a second-round draft choice and future considerations. He and Marybeth have been on the move ever since. Only now was there time for her to catch up with him, to stop for a moment. To watch a game.