Until this year, John Sr. was the head or assistant coach of every team Pat played on, including the superb Compuware Midgets, a team for 15-and 16-year-olds sponsored by a Detroit-area computer software company. Last season Compuware went 88-2 behind Pat's 175 goals and 149 assists. John Sr. also played a major role in Pat's selection of Verdun over Belleville, an Ontario Hockey League team owned in part by Wayne Gretzky, which also drafted him. Last summer Gretzky invited Pat to play golf in Toronto, and during the round The Great One tried to persuade him to sign with Belleville. "I heard him tell his girl friend, 'We have to get this kid,' " says Pat. But the LaFontaines decided on Verdun partly because travel is less grueling in the QMJHL than in the OHL and partly because of the style of play there. The QMJHL is known as a scorer's league, and besides Lafleur it boasts such alumni as Savard, Mike Bossy, Dale Hawerchuk and Pierre Larouche.
Above all else, LaFontaine is a goal scorer. Consider a Feb. 25 Verdun defeat of the Quebec Remparts, during which LaFontaine tied his season high of eight points in a game with four goals and four assists. Three of the goals were sheer artistry. On one he used his right glove to knock down a flip pass from linemate Gerard Gallant and direct the puck onto his stick blade. As he was gathering in the puck, he cut left-to-right across the slot and then shot back across the grain to catch the lower lefthand corner of the net. On another goal, with a Remparts defenseman draped all over him, LaFontaine spun clockwise away from the net, shielding the puck with his body. Using the defenseman as a screen, he fired a 20-foot backhander (a good backhand shot is rare even in the NHL) a foot off the ice into the left side of the net. Thirty-seven seconds later he scored again after passing between his legs to Gallant and then waiting at the edge of the crease to sweep Gallant's return pass into a virtually empty net.
After leaving the Verdun restaurant, LaFontaine returns to the Boyers' house, where he awaits the arrival of a photographer. LaFontaine sits at the kitchen table while Gisele translates a French-language newspaper account of the previous night's game. Though LaFontaine has two dresser drawers filled with news clips about him, he can make out only about half of what's contained in them. Twice during Gisele's translation, LaFontaine interrupts her to say something to Yvon, who is trimming meat at the kitchen counter. After the third interruption Gisele stops reading to glare in mock anger over the top of the newspaper.
"She's going to kill me," says LaFontaine with a laugh. He immediately pulls himself into a posture of rapt attention and falls silent until Gisele has finished reading the article. Yvon is smiling. There appears to be a bond of genuine affection between the couple and their son-for-a-season. "I think he's homesick sometimes," says Gisele. "It's natural that he misses his friends and his family. But I will be lonely when he goes."
On Pat's birthday in February, the Boyers threw a surprise party for him, to which they invited a number of his teammates. The guests presented him with a stuffed Bugs Bunny doll dressed in a replica of the Verdun team jersey, complete with LaFontaine's number, 16, and his name across the back. "They sometimes call me Bugs because I'm always saying, 'What's up, guys?' " says LaFontaine, who put the stuffed animal on his bedside table along with 10 pucks various youth hockey teams have given him for participating in ceremonial face-offs as a celebrity guest at games. "He says yes to anybody who asks him to do anything," says Yvon. "He will have to learn to say no sometime."
LaFontaine is indeed relentlessly agreeable, and of such even disposition that his coach, Pierre Creamer, once said, "He was always so calm I thought he had no blood. Then, the night his scoring streak ended, I saw him cry. I knew then he had blood."
What blood he has, he plans to keep. "I've never had a fight in my entire hockey career," says the 5'10", 175-pound LaFontaine, who had only 10 penalty minutes this season. "If I go to the NHL and someone challenges me, I won't back down, but fighting isn't part of my game. Look at Gretzky and Bossy. They don't have to fight."
No, but a player of LaFontaine's abilities must have the goons kept off his back, which is one reason that Verdun traded for Gallant in December. Gallant is what sportswriter Marc Lachapelle, who has covered Junior A hockey for 12 years for the Journal de Montreal, calls "a player of respect who creates an area of immunity around Pat." Tactfully put. At 18, LaFontaine already has his first bodyguard.
"When I came here no one told me I was supposed to take care of Pat," says Gallant, "but I am not stupid. I am not going to let anyone get away with anything if I'm on the ice."
Lachapelle rates LaFontaine as one of the finest Junior A players that he has ever seen—right up with Bossy, Savard and Boston Bruins Defenseman Ray Bourque. Says Winnipeg Jets General Manager John Ferguson, a former Canadien tough guy whose respect for LaFontaine is in no way diminished by the youngster's clean style, "He's a natural scorer. Around the net he's got the quickest hands I've ever seen. I'll tell you how fast his hands are. The last time I was in Montreal I went into a video arcade near the Forum, and three of the games were flashing Pat LaFontaine's name as the high scorer."