LaFontaine was so mindful of his elders that he had to fight the urge to address them as Mr. Trottier, Mr. Bossy, Mr. Gillies, Mr. Goring. For a long time, his deference showed up in his play. It was almost as if he was afraid of stealing the thunder of the men who had won all those Stanley Cups.
"Something always held him back," says Sutter. "I think he always had it in him, but he was a little nervous or unsure about letting it out. Nothing against Boss, but I think it's great for guys like Patty to break some of the records of the old guys. The past is the past. We're a new team with a new outlook."
To spare Islander newcomers what he went through, LaFontaine has become a self-appointed one-man welcome wagon. He and his wife, Marybeth, have barbecues in the off-season; all Islanders are invited. According to Chyzowski, he peppers rookies and recent acquisitions with concerned questions: "Is your apartment working out? Do you need some help finding a car?"
"He can't do enough for you," says McDonough.
The Islanders have become LaFontaine's team. New York finished strong last season, winning four of its final six games. Not long afterward, LaFontaine phoned Arbour, who was still the interim coach, and made a date for breakfast. Over coffee he asked Arbour to consider staying on as coach.
"I thought it over and decided, What the hell, I'll give it another whack," says Arbour, whose strengths—an endless store of patience and a gift for teaching—are perfectly suited to his youthful team. When Torrey asked him to return to coaching, after having fired Terry Simpson, Arbour admits he wanted nothing to do with it. All told, as a player and coach, he had won seven Stanley Cups. He was a lock to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was prepared to play out his string with the club in a less-stressful job as vice-president for player development.
Instead, he found himself back in Ulcerville, pushing the buttons for one of the league's worst teams—and liking it. While guiding New York to a 21-29-3 record last season, Arbour contracted the coaching bug again. "I get pleasure out of watching young players mature and grow," he says. On mornings after games, early arrivals to the Islander offices began finding Arbour already in his quarters, breaking down video.
Even when the Islanders got off to a 5-18-3 start this season, they did not despair. They were a composed 5-18-3. "Surprisingly, there was no sense of panic," says Maloney, a former New York Ranger. "Across town, guys used to be ready to jump off the roof when we lost two games in a row."
Through it all, Arbour preached the importance of winning "the little battles" along the boards and in the corners, and of "accountability to one another." Then Torrey pulled the trigger on the Trade, and the bigger victories began to come. "Now the game's fun again," says LaFontaine. "That's what it's supposed to be, right? I mean, this is a kid's game."
Did someone say "kids"? The Islanders went into their Jan. 11 meeting with the North Stars with this incentive: If they won and the Philadelphia Flyers lost, the Islanders—for so long a tenant of the Patrick Division basement—would take over second place, behind the New Jersey Devils. In the visitors' dressing room afterward, an Islander was asked how it felt to be in second. "You mean the Flyers lost?" he asked.