This was not what Marybeth LaFontaine really wanted. She sat in the good seats in Madison Square Garden and watched her husband come onto the ice two weeks ago with the rest of the New York Rangers as the lights on the scoreboard whirled and Hashed and as that song Tubthumping, by Chumbawamba, was played as loud as possible on the sound system—"I get knocked down. But I get up again. You're never going to keep me down"—and she didn't know if she could watch.
What if her husband got knocked down? What if he didn't get up, if he got knocked out again? What if...? A columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, Allen Panzeri, had written as the season began, "Watching Pat LaFontaine play hockey this year is like going to an automobile race to see the crashes. You're not really watching for the goals and the assists, you're watching for the wrecks." That was as good a description as any.
"I don't know how this is going to go," Marybeth said to Tammy Keane, the wife of Rangers winger Mike Keane. "I don't know if I can take it."
The memories of less than a year ago were too fresh. This was the 18th game back for Pat, an undersized, 32-year-old center, from the grim aftereffects of a fifth concussion, which had caused him to miss most of last season. This was Marybeth's first game back. She had been wrapped up in the business of closing the old house outside Buffalo, setting up the new house in Greenwich, Conn., moving the three kids and two dogs from one place to the other and finding new doctors and schools and dry cleaners, taking care of everything in slightly more than a month. Unpacked boxes still filled the new house. The babysitter, Mokey McCarthy, brought from Buffalo to help for a week, was in her third week on the job.
Now, finally, there was time to watch Pat play. As she settled into her seat, Marybeth couldn't help thinking that everything could have been so much easier, so much safer. Stay in the old house, the one she and Pat had built to their specifications. Live the same life they'd lived for most of their 10 years of marriage. Take the guaranteed contract for almost $10 million for the next two years. Retire. Maybe some doctors had cleared Pat to play again, to take chances, but hadn't almost everyone else told him to be smart, to grab the money, to begin to live the rest of his life? Hadn't she told him the same thing? "I couldn't do what you're doing," she had told him, flat out. "I wouldn't do it."
The game, hockey, scared her now. She had seen what it could do.
"He was very emotional," Marybeth says, describing the bad times of a year ago. "I would walk into a room, and he would be crying. He cried a lot. Or he would be holding his head from the migraine headaches. They were terrible. He wouldn't leave the house for a week. He wouldn't change his clothes, wouldn't shower. It was all the classic signs of depression. I thought he was having a nervous breakdown."
Pat, a bouncy 5'10", 180-pound perfectionist who had almost willed himself into becoming arguably the best U.S.-born player in history, the star of the Buffalo Sabres, had been replaced by a zombie, a husk. His skin was pale. His eyes, the same wide eyes that had caused teenage girls to leave phone numbers and undergarments on his car when he was a 19-year-old playing for the New York Islanders, were now glassy. A man of many interests now had interest in nothing.
On Oct. 17, 1996, he was dropped by a hit from 6'6", 236-pound Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Francois Leroux. The blow from Leroux's left elbow was to the left side of LaFontaine's head. As he fell, his helmet came off. He struck the right side of his head on the ice and went out cold. At first there didn't seem to be a problem. He regained consciousness after a few minutes, and though he sat out the rest of the game, he was able to drive himself home. He missed the next game but was back one week after the injury to play against the Montreal Canadiens. He appeared in six more games. He was fine.
No, he wasn't. The depression had landed in a thick cloud in his head. His hand-eye coordination had gradually disappeared. The migraines had begun. He couldn't remember the simplest things. He was gone, off to a different, scary world. Before the final game he tried to play, against the Philadelphia Flyers, he gave an emotional speech to the Sabres, an apology for the way he was performing. Buffalo coach Ted Nolan pulled him from the lineup. It was time to get help.