The entertainment begins at about 11:15 p.m., a few minutes after the bus carrying Club de Hockey Junior de Verdun pulls out of a McDonald's parking lot in Shawinigan, Quebec. The team is beginning the two-hour drive back to suburban Montreal after a 3-1 win over Les Cataractes de Shawinigan. Cheers of anticipation greet the "backup band" as Verdun players Jacques Sylvestre (playing an imaginary guitar), Jean-Maurice Cool (imaginary trumpet) and Steve Wood-burn (imaginary drums) start strutting up the aisle. They are followed by Jean Bourgeois, who is already stripping off his jacket. At the front of the bus, Sylvestre, Cool and Woodburn turn to face their increasingly appreciative audience. Bourgeois, still facing forward, pulls down his tie, drapes a wool scarf around his neck, unbuttons his white shirt to the navel and whirls to confront his now howling teammates.
"Now since my baby left me
I've found a new place to dwell...."
Bourgeois bumps and grinds Elvis-style down the aisle of the fast-moving bus, singing parts of Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel. His teammates laugh and yell at him. Nearly all their remarks are in French. In the sixth row, aisle seat, right side of the bus, sits Verdun's star center and leading scorer, Pat LaFontaine, who's smiling and apparently enjoying the show. He's not shouting, partly because that's not his nature, but mostly because he doesn't know a lot of French.
Despite the Gallic ring to his name, LaFontaine is not a French-Canadian but an American. He's from Waterford Township, Mich., a town about an hour's drive north of Detroit. Only three Americans play in the 11-team Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and of the 800 players in Canada's Tier One Junior A leagues, which consist of the QMJHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, just 32 are U.S.-born. Of the comparatively few 16-to 19-year-old players in the U.S. capable of holding their own in Junior A, the premier proving ground for the NHL, most aren't willing to give up high school and college hockey, not to mention family and friends. Like their Canadian counterparts, those who do travel north of the border to play have one goal: to be drafted by an NHL team.
In LaFontaine's case, the question is not whether he'll be drafted, but how high. There's a strong possibility that he will make hockey history in June by becoming the first U.S.-born player to be picked No. 1. To date, the U.S. players selected highest have been Washington Capitals Center Bobby Carpenter of Pea-body, Mass., who was the third choice in 1981, and Buffalo Sabres Defenseman Phil Housley of South St. Paul, Minn., who was picked sixth last year. If LaFontaine doesn't go first, another U.S. player, Brian Lawton of Cumberland, R.I., a 17-year-old center who recently led his Mt. St. Charles Academy team to its sixth straight state Metro A championship, could be No. 1. But while Carpenter, Housley and Lawton stayed home and developed their considerable talents in excellent New England and Minnesota schoolboy leagues, LaFontaine, who attended Waterford Kettering High, which doesn't have a hockey team, chose a different—and far more demanding—route to the NHL.
At the front of the team bus, Bourgeois' act dissolves into general chaos when an assistant trainer jumps up, tears off the Elvis scarf, plants a kiss on Bourgeois' cheek and feigns a swoon back into his chair. "You spend a lot of time on a bus in Junior A hockey," says LaFontaine. "You have to find ways to stay amused."
The two-to five-hour bus trips aren't the only burdens of life in the QMJHL. The 70-game regular-season schedule runs from September into March and is followed by postseason play that can extend through May. There is either a game or a practice every day and, because most of the players are completing high school or starting college, they must find ways to reconcile their academic and hockey schedules. That can test a youngster's willpower on those mornings when the bus rolls in at 3 a.m. and classes start at eight. A Junior A player usually must also adjust to living as a boarder with a family in the city where his team is based. For this and other hardships the player receives a $35-a-week stipend, out of which fines may be deducted for infractions of team rules. The final touch of professional realism is that a player can be traded.
It's after 1:30 when the bus pulls up to the Verdun Auditorium and LaFontaine and his teammates lug their equipment bags into the locker room and head home. In LaFontaine's case, that's a brick triplex, set among scores of similar triplexes, at 6490 Champlain Boulevard. The house belongs to a retired butcher, Yvon Boyer, and his wife, Gisele, whose children have grown up and moved away. The Boyers "have been like another set of parents to me," says LaFontaine, who has his own key, his own room and kitchen privileges for snacks. Gisele takes care of meals. Still, the rather crowded working-class neighborhood is a far cry from the one in which the LaFontaine family's nine-room split-level ranch-style house sits on the shores of Michigan's Williams Lake.
Earlier in the season, LaFontaine had to worry about getting up for school on mornings following games. But after he finished his high school graduation requirements at Verdun Catholic, where courses are taught in English, and enrolled in Dawson College in Montreal, a midwinter teachers' strike cost LaFontaine about a month of classes. So he quit school to concentrate on hockey the rest of the season. This summer he plans to take part in Waterford Kettering graduation ceremonies and enroll at a college in the Detroit area.
By 10 o'clock on the morning after the Shawinigan game, LaFontaine is at the rink, ready to study videotapes of Longueuil, the team Verdun will face at home that night. LaFontaine is a nearly obsessive student of hockey. Because most Verdun practices begin at 5 p.m.—for the convenience of players in school—mornings often find him looking at tapes or making the 10-minute drive to the Montreal Forum. There he scrutinizes Canadien practices as well as the workouts of visiting teams, "mostly looking for new moves from the forwards, things I can try," he says.