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A New Departure Toward Arrival
Jack Falla
March 28, 1983
The top pick in the NHL draft may be Pat LaFontaine, a U.S. kid who said goodby to family and friends to play against the best in Canada
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March 28, 1983

A New Departure Toward Arrival

The top pick in the NHL draft may be Pat LaFontaine, a U.S. kid who said goodby to family and friends to play against the best in Canada

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A malfunctioning video recorder prevents LaFontaine from viewing the tapes, so at 11 he leaves the rink and walks to his car, a 1982 Chrysler on loan from his mother for the season. Scrawled in the salt and dust on the trunk are a few words. The name of their author is smudged and hard to read. It's either Natalie or Nathania. However, the rest of the message is clear: "I love Pat." LaFontaine takes it in stride. "Time to get the car washed," he says. "Usually they just leave notes on the windshield."

A few minutes later, LaFontaine drives to a nearby restaurant. As he walks from the parking lot, a truck driver honks his horn and waves. Inside, a cook recognizes him and yells out a greeting. LaFontaine's hockey exploits last fall quickly made him a local celebrity, and as the season wore on he moved closer to national sports stardom.

LaFontaine got one or more points in each of Verdun's first 43 games. The streak broke by three games a 12-year-old QMJHL record for consecutive games with at least one point, held by a player who became a French-Canadian demigod, the Canadiens' Guy Lafleur. After the Jan. 5 game in which LaFontaine surpassed Lafleur's mark with three goals and one assist, he received congratulatory telegrams from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque. When QMJHL regular-season play ended last Friday, LaFontaine had had a point or more in all but one of Verdun's games. He finished with a league-high 104 goals and 130 assists for 234 points, which made him the third-highest single-season scorer in league history and one of only seven QMJHL players ever to get more than 200 points in a season. His performance also earned him many league scoring records, including most goals, assists and points by a rookie and by a 17-year-old (he didn't turn 18 until Feb. 22), as well as the Verdun assist record, which had been held by the Chicago Black Hawks' brilliant center, Denis Savard.

As LaFontaine rolled up the numbers, he also reeled in the publicity. Toronto's Globe & Mail, The Boston Globe, The Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today and the French-language Journal de Montreal have all carried features on the U.S. kid who went to Canada to get drafted. Shortly after breaking Lafleur's record, he appeared as a between-periods guest on Hockey Night in Canada, the popular Canadian national telecast of NHL games.

LaFontaine has no regrets about his decision to leave home to play hockey. "There's Junior A hockey in the Detroit area," he says, "but it's not at the same level as Canadian Junior A. If I wanted to progress, I had to come here. My other choice would have been to play college hockey. But that's maybe 30 or 40 games a season. Here I play more than 70. Besides, I've known since I was a kid that I wanted to play pro hockey, so I decided to give three good years to it and see what happens." One thing that has happened is that LaFontaine has forfeited his college eligibility. The NCAA regards Tier One Canadian Junior A players as de facto professionals because they have accepted money, room and board for their services.

"The decision to go to Canada wasn't sudden or dramatic," says LaFontaine's father, John, a Chrysler executive whose eldest son, John Jr., 19, a center-right wing and a possible pro draft pick this year, also left home this season, to play for Nanaimo in the Western Hockey League. "Pat made it easy for us by being so sure about what he wants to do. Then we just took a look at where the pros are coming from. While an increasing number are from American colleges, the vast majority still come from the Canadian junior leagues."

By contrast, Lawton has received far less publicity than LaFontaine while toiling in comparative obscurity for one of the best high school teams in the U.S. "I know there's a better brand of hockey in juniors," says Lawton, "but my parents and I thought it was best if I kept all my options open. I can still play college hockey if I want to." Two weeks ago Lawton signed a letter of intent with Providence College, a perennial hockey power, which will play in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament this weekend. However, if he goes as high in the draft as most hockey people think he will, he'll likely turn pro this year.

Coincidentally, Lawton's Junior A draft rights are owned by Verdun. In January, after his return from the World Junior Championships in Leningrad, Lawton received a phone call from Verdun General Manager Eric Taylor. During the conversation, LaFontaine and his father wandered into Taylor's office, and they asked to speak with Lawton. "Pat didn't try to railroad me or anything," says Lawton, who has never met LaFontaine, "but he made it sound pretty good up there. Mr. LaFontaine just told me that Pat was very happy in Verdun and that the team looked like a strong contender for the Memorial Cup [the Junior A equivalent of the Stanley Cup]. I was tempted to go."

Although it would be an overstatement to say that LaFontaine's father is vicariously fulfilling his own admittedly frustrated hockey ambitions through the achievements of his sons, clearly he has been the major force in his boys' careers. (The LaFontaines also have a 14-year-old daughter, Rene, who's an accomplished figure skater.) Their mother, Jay, recalls that "even before we bought skates for the boys, John had a goal in the cellar and he'd take John and Pat down there. They'd play with cut-down sticks and shoot tennis balls."

In 1972, when John Sr.'s job sent the family from St. Louis to Detroit, he took advantage of his new home's lakefront location by constructing a rink when the water froze. "It was about two-thirds regulation size," he says. "We built up snow for boards and had a couple of regulation-size goals. At night I'd go out with a hose and an electric pump, chop through the ice and pump up lake water to resurface the rink." He also installed eight spotlights so his boys and their friends could play at night.

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