The two newest members of the New York Islanders, Pat LaFontaine and Pat Flatley, stood in the grassy dunes of Long Island's Jones Beach last week peering out at the Atlantic. With the exception of the couple glomming on to each other in the white Corvette in the parking lot—"That's a great car," noted LaFontaine—the beach was deserted; the sky had been breeze-laundered of any color but blue, and the temperature hovered near an unusually balmy 60°. "It's just like Florida," said LaFontaine, his big brown puppy-dog eyes smiling at the natural wonders around him. "It's going to be great coming down here this summer, isn't it, Flats?"
By unofficial count, the Corvette and the beach were the 411th and 412th "great" things that LaFontaine had been exposed to since he and Flatley joined the Islanders on Feb. 27 from the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams, respectively, just in time for New York's Drive for Five Stanley Cups in a row. The guys are great, the fans are great, the NHL is great, rough games are great, Mr. Torrey and Mr. Arbour are both great, his linemates are great, just wearing the jersey is great, Uncle Frank's advice is great.... When LaFontaine finally utters his first complaint, somebody's going to have a helluva scoop.
But what's to complain about? With nine goals in his first nine games—many of them sensational—the 19-year-old LaFontaine, who was raised in Michigan, has become the darling of Long Island. "I get fan mail wishing me luck," says Flatley. "Pat gets fan mail from girls who are in love with him and want to marry him." Still, things haven't been going too badly for Flatley either: He scored on both his first NHL shot and his first NHL coconut custard pie, which was delivered into Duane Sutter's face on the occasion of Sutter's 24th birthday last Friday. Small wonder the Islanders, a closely knit team of veterans that has never welcomed new players easily, have virtually embraced their brace of Pats. Their chances of winning a record-tying fifth straight Cup have never looked better.
"They've given us a breath of fresh air," says Islander coach Al Arbour, an understated man who nonetheless can barely hold back a grin when discussing LaFontaine and Flatley. "A little youthful enthusiasm is pretty useful to have around at this time of year."
More tangibly, the addition of the two Pats gives Arbour four solid lines for the playoffs—depth that will come in handy in the opening round, when the Islanders might have to play four games in five nights—and, with Bryan Trottier, Brent Sutter, Butch Goring and LaFontaine, the best corps of centers in the league.
And so the rich get richer. How? Well, in 1982, Flatley was the Islanders' regular first-round draft choice, the 21st player selected. LaFontaine, however, came as the result of a trade New York general manager Bill Torrey made in 1981 with the Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils), in which he gave up defenseman Bob Lorimer and forward Dave Cameron for Colorado's first-round pick in 1983. "We knew 1983 was going to be an exceptional year in the draft," says Torrey, "but I can't tell you I was hoping to get Pat LaFontaine."
Indeed, that was true even on the June morning of the draft. Selecting third, Torrey waited as both Minnesota and Hartford bypassed LaFontaine (in favor of Brian Lawton and Sylvain Turgeon, respectively), despite the fact that LaFontaine had scored 104 goals and 130 assists the season before for Verdun of the Quebec Junior League—breaking records previously held by such scoring phenoms as Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy. "We had LaFontaine rated first overall," says David Poile, G.M. of the Washington Capitals. Torrey won't divulge exactly where the Islanders rated LaFontaine, but the answer is obvious.
All season long Islander players, fans, and coaches had greedily anticipated the arrival of LaFontaine and Flatley. If either player got a goal for his Olympic team, it was flashed on the scoreboard at the Nassau Coliseum during Islander games, making them minor celebrities before they had ever set foot on Long Island. Four years ago it was the addition of another Olympian, defenseman Ken Morrow, that set off a series of events leading to the Isles' first Stanley Cup, in 1980; Morrow's presence permitted Torrey to trade one of his established defensemen, Dave Lewis, to Los Angeles in exchange for the center his team needed so desperately, Goring. It was such an accepted fact that the two Pats would step right in and play that the Islanders whom they would replace developed a sort of gallows humor on the subject. When Flatley was introduced around the locker room before his first Islander practice, Anders Kallur, a winger destined for the Isles' burgeoning taxi squad, cracked to a group of teammates: "He's Flatley. I'm history."
"I was nervous just stepping into the room with those guys," says Flatley, a native of Toronto who was an All-America at Wisconsin, the 1983 NCAA champs. "The whole practice I couldn't even hold on to the puck."
LaFontaine, meanwhile, was following some very unorthodox advice for a hockey player. "My Uncle Frank told me to keep my head down when I got here and not look at the names on the jerseys," he says. One of the first things LaFontaine saw was the laces on his skates, which had been cut into little wormlike shreds by team prankster Clark Gillies before LaFontaine's first practice. Two days later, forgetting Uncle Frank's advice while eating his first pregame meal LaFontaine heard winger Bob Bourne call out, "Shoe check!" and looked down to discover that both his shoes and Flatley's were covered with ketchup.
"Everyone on the team has gone out of the way to make us feel accepted," says Flatley, whose line scored all four goals in Canada's 4-2 win over the U.S. at Sarajevo. "It's not just one or two guys. It's the whole organization. [Director of scouting] Gerry Ehman took us aside before our first game and asked us how things were going. I said I was more nervous than I thought I would be. He said, 'Nervous? After all you've been through at the Olympics? Just remember, this isn't a one-or two-night thing. This is the start of a long relationship.' "
Six minutes into his first game, Flatley, who's 6'2", 195 pounds, slammed Winnipeg forward Lucien DeBlois into the boards, came away with the puck and fired a wrist shot past Doug Soetaert for his first NHL goal. It was the sort of honest, workmanlike effort that characterizes Flatley's play, earning him comparisons with Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli, the other premier Islander muckers.
LaFontaine, who's 5'9" and weighs 180, was held scoreless in Winnipeg but in his second game exploded with a hat trick and two assists in an 11-6 Islander win at Toronto. "Everything we heard about them is true," said Bourne, who immediately drew comparisons between LaFontaine and Chicago center Denis Savard. Arbour, for his part, saw likenesses between LaFontaine and L.A.'s Marcel Dionne, who's closing in on 600 goals for his career. In his first home game, LaFontaine gave Islander fans a taste of his artistry when, in the third period of a 3-1 defeat of the Flyers, he scored from the face-off in a neat little move that he had first used as a Pee Wee. Squaring off against Philadelphia rookie Ron Sutter, LaFontaine heard Flyer goalie Bob Froese warn his teammates to watch for a shot from the point. "I figured that was a good time to try it," said LaFontaine, who deftly tapped the puck through Sutter's legs, slid inside him to pick it up again and fired a shot into the top corner before anyone else seemed to have moved. John LaFontaine, a Chrysler plant manager and Pat's Pee Wee coach, was watching the game from the stands, and afterward he recalled the first time he had seen his son work that play. "There were 11 seconds left in a tie game, and Pat told me to leave him out there because he wanted to try something on the face-off."
Indeed, LaFontaine seems to manufacture scoring chances out of seemingly harmless situations. In his three weeks with the Islanders, he has already scored in virtually every way imaginable—breakaways, face-offs, rebounds, slap shots from the slot. "He's not very big, but he sticks his nose in there," says an admiring Arbour, who also has been pleasantly surprised by LaFontaine's defensive play. "He's not going to bowl anybody over in our zone, but he is going to eliminate somebody."
Last Saturday—St. Patrick's Day—before the Isles took on the Caps, Poile jokingly asked Torrey if LaFontaine had a bonus clause in his six-figure contract for scoring 10 goals this year. LaFontaine already had seven in his first seven games, but Torrey quickly informed Poile that five of those goals had come at the expense of the woeful Maple Leafs, who are last in the Norris Division. "It's going to be different tonight," Torrey said, referring to the Capitals' league-leading defense, the likes of which LaFontaine had yet to face.
But if Torrey was worried that LaFontaine might turn out to be one of those players who just show up for the runaways, he can set his mind at rest. In a preview of what might well be the playoff matchup that decides who meets Edmonton for the Stanley Cup, New York and Washington played an old-style, up-and-down, close-checking game in which LaFontaine was the best Islander forward. In the first period he gave the Isles a 1-0 lead by gathering a rebound from behind the goal, gliding to the side of the net and, just when everyone expected him to pass or skate out front, tucking the puck between goalie Pat Rig-gin's skate and the near post from an almost impossible angle.
"I've never seen LaFontaine play a game in which he didn't get at least one good scoring chance," lamented Poile. "That didn't even look like a scoring chance, but I guess we have to count it."
The Caps recovered, shutting down the Isles and LaFontaine the rest of the way, to win 2-1 and move within a single point of the division-leading Islanders. Still, the true test—the playoffs—is still to come. With Trottier, Bossy and Greg Gilbert; Brent and Duane Sutter and Bourne; and LaFontaine, Tonelli and Nystrom, the Islanders have three excellent scoring lines—plus an intimidating checking trio of Gillies, Goring and Flatley. "The teams we'll have to beat have one or two checking lines," says Torrey. "Not three. LaFontaine gives us another line. He's unique. I don't really think he reminds me of anybody. Even when he has a bad night, or a night when they're climbing all over him, he still gets his scoring chances."
There's a difference between this year's Islander team and the teams that have won the past four Stanley Cups. This year's team must score, and score often, to win. The Isles have slipped from first to fourth in overall team defense, allowing 29 more goals in 73 games this season than they did in 80 games last year. In games in which they've scored three or fewer goals, the Isles are a horrific 2-22-0. When they score four times or more, they are 43-4-2. It's a dangerous way to win, since a hot goaltender in a short series can singlehandedly eliminate a team that relies on its offense. (Witness what Islander goalie Billy Smith did to the Oilers last year.) Still, the Islanders have a way of tightening the screws when the money is on the line, and you would have to say the chances look good for the Cup's standing pat on Long Island. You might even say they look great.