He looked small on the ice, the way he has always looked, even while he was racking up 454 career goals and 512 assists. He looked fast, shifty, daring, the way he's always looked. The average size of the players around him had increased by maybe an inch in height, by maybe 10 or 15 pounds since he started in 1984, to more than 6'1" and more than 210 pounds. The New Jersey Devils' defensemen were dangerous hulks. He was a mouse challenging a succession of big cats.
"You can't carry skeletons when you come on the ice in this league," Rangers coach Colin Campbell said recently. "Especially a guy like Patty. He's a puck-oriented player. He's always going to be in the middle of the action. At his size he can't take even five percent off his game and still be effective. He has to play the way he always has."
The usual perils of playing a game bounded by wooden and Plexiglas walls seemed magnified. LaFontaine's only concessions to his injury were a tighter, more padded helmet, double-strapped around his jaw, and a mouth guard to help absorb the impact of collisions. The unwritten rule during the regular season is that players shouldn't look for particular numbers to hit, that the hits should arrive according to situations, but Campbell felt players had been looking for LaFontaine, testing him. Then again, the puck-oriented player always gets hit.
In the first period LaFontaine was hit hard. Sliding past New Jersey center Doug Gilmour, he was caught in a small tunnel of space, a corridor between Gilmour and the boards near the New York bench. Devils defenseman Scott Stevens was coming from the other end of the corridor. "Everyone's fair game," Stevens would say later. "The way I've always been taught, you try to hit the best player on the ice. I saw it was Pat. Sure, I knew it was him."
Stevens lowered his shoulder. LaFontaine went flying. There was a moment—there will always be a moment for him now—when there was uncertainty if he would get up. But in a bound he was back on his skates, zipping toward the Devils' zone. He finished the game without incident.
"Did you see that hit?" Marybeth was asked after the Rangers had lost 3-2.
"I saw it," she replied. "It was the hit of the game, wasn't it?"
She stayed for the whole game because she wanted to show her love for Pat and her support for what he was doing. This didn't mean she enjoyed it. She was nervous the entire time. No matter how well he plays—and he is playing well (at week's end he was leading the Rangers in scoring with 13 goals and 15 assists)—there will always be that "what if."
Marybeth says he tried to explain himself one day. He used an analogy. He asked her to think of something she liked to do, loved to do. Something like...shopping. Suppose she were injured while she was shopping and, for a while, it appeared that she could never shop again. Suppose, then, she started feeling better. Suppose she talked to a number of doctors who assured her that she could go back to shopping. That there would be no risk. Wouldn't she go back? Wouldn't she shop again?
"I'd shop from home," was her reply. "I'd shop from catalogs."