This Yank Is a Dandy

After a shaky beginning, U.S.-born Pat LaFontaine of the Islanders is at last living up to his star billing
February 15, 1988

His shoulders are broader, his chest is thicker, his game is better rounded. The mug, however, looks much the same as it did four years ago when doe-eyed, smooth-skinned Pat LaFontaine took the NHL by storm in his first season with the Islanders. When LaFontaine, whose cherubic good looks send hormones raging among the Tiger Beat set, married Marybeth Hoey last spring, he broke the hearts of teenage girls from Oyster Bay to Orient Point. But home and hearth, Marybeth's soothing words after a bad game and her superb carrot cake have had a steadying influence.

These days LaFontaine drives to work in one of those snub-nosed vans ideal for young families on the go. He and Marybeth, a former Wilhelmina model, and Fred, a golden retriever, and Barney, a Lhasa apso, live in an eight-room house on a wooded acre in Huntington, N.Y., 25 miles from the Islanders' home ice at Nassau Coliseum.

Says Marybeth, "You know how they say you can take your work home with you? Well, you can also take your home to work. We're married now, Patty's settled, he's satisfied, and it shows."

Just shy of his 23rd birthday (Feb. 22), LaFontaine is more than halfway through his fourth, and by far his best, NHL season. A midseason acknowledgment of that came when Mike Keenan, coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and this year's Wales Conference All-Stars, selected LaFontaine as one of his centers. In his first All-Star appearance LaFontaine was one of just four U.S.-born players in the game on Feb. 9.

America got its first look at LaFontaine when he was an 18-year-old star of the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team and one of the most talented American players ever. A season earlier, in 1982-83, he had a mind-numbing 104 goals and 130 assists for Verdun of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. By scoring in 43 consecutive games, he broke the record of 40 set in 1971 by Guy Lafleur.

Alas, at the Sarajevo Games the Diaper Line—LaFontaine and fellow teens David A. Jensen and Eddie Olczyk—never made it to the medal round. Team USA lost its first two games, disappearing from the competition even before the opening ceremonies.

After the Olympics, LaFontaine immediately joined the Islanders, who had made him their top pick, third overall, in the '83 entry draft. In his second NHL game he had a hat trick and five points. For a tantalizing month he was sensational, scoring 13 goals, 19 points, in 15 games. It seemed the charmed Islanders, winners of every Stanley Cup since 1980, had taken out dynasty insurance by signing LaFontaine. Says Islander general manager Bill Torrey, "I'm no different from the next guy. You always hope you've got the next Gretzky."

The Drive for Five failed. That May in the Stanley Cup finals the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers beat the Isles in five games. LaFontaine was disappointing—expectations were so inflated he could hardly have been otherwise. In '84-85, his first full season, the wunderkind was exposed as a one-dimensional teenager who had honed his considerable offensive skills at the expense of learning defense.

"In juniors, when I saw a loose puck, I could just go for it," says LaFontaine. "So I had to make adjustments. And sometimes the maturity level to do that wasn't there."

When coach Al Arbour let him on the ice it was to skate on the third and fourth lines. Arbour says, "Who was he going to take ice-time from? Bryan Trottier? Brent Sutter? Butch Goring? We'd won four Stanley Cups with those guys. You've got to go with those guys."

The next season LaFontaine had eight goals and 21 assists in his first 30 games, healthy numbers. But he was expected to do better. LAFONTAINE'S PROGRESS SLOW lamented a New York Times headline. In January he came down with mononucleosis and missed 13 games. During the 1985-86 season he separated a shoulder and sat out 15 more. Now both his ability and durability were being questioned. Before LaFontaine joined the team, doubters had pointed to his unimposing dimensions—5'9½", 170 pounds when he joined the team—and predicted a Gidget Goes to the Patrick Division scenario, in which the league's bullies would use the undersized heartthrob to swab the boards. LaFontaine's second major absence in as many years seemed to bear them out.

But there was this more telling statistic: Of his 30 goals in '85-86, 28 came in five-on-five situations. Anyone can score on a power play (witness this season, when everyone, in fact, does). A truer gauge of ability is the even-strength goal. Says Don Meehan, LaFontaine's lawyer and close friend, "Remember, it wasn't as if he had people like Michel Goulet as his wingers, either."

Off the ice LaFontaine was enjoying himself more. He and Marybeth began dating shortly after the 1983-84 season. "He was very down-to-earth, very genuine," says Marybeth. "It was obvious he wasn't into dating 50 girls. He just wanted to be plain old Pat." Because plain old Pat tended to attract more attention from the opposite sex than an ordinary 19-year-old, their courtship had its awkward moments. "But Pat always told me, 'If you let the people outside us get between us, it will never work. So we didn't."

By his third season with the Islanders, LaFontaine understood that he would need to start getting his fingernails dirty. He did, and rookie coach Terry Simpson rewarded him with more playing time—"well deserved time," says the ageless Trottier, one of the game's best two-way centers. "Patty is concentrating on his positioning better, he doesn't cheat on his backchecking, he doesn't get caught too far up the ice." In short, he's playing more like Trottier.

LaFontaine's second-half numbers last year were All-Star caliber. He had 19 goals, nine of them in the final 10 games. He scored the game-winner in the Isles' last five regular-season games and was the team's playoff hero.

It was Trottier's goal, with Washington Capitals defenseman Kevin Hatcher draped all over him, that tied the Caps 2-2 in the waning minutes of the seventh game of last spring's divisional semifinals. Early the next morning, four overtimes later, LaFontaine's 35-foot screened slap shot provided a merciful, historic finish to the six-hour, 18-minute Easter epic, the longest NHL game since 1943.

In the dressing room afterward, LaFontaine praised both goaltenders, teammate Gord Dineen for making the assist on his goal, Trottier for tying the game and assistant trainer Jim Pickard for predicting that LaFontaine would win it. For the modest LaFontaine, this is not overkill. When it gets ridiculous, when LaFontaine goes end to end and beats the opposing goalie with a blind backhander, then credits, say, the fellow who taped his ankles or the Nassau Coliseum ushers for the professional way they go about their jobs, Barry Meisel, who covers the Islanders for the New York Daily News is apt to interrupt politely, "Pat, please recount the goal without mentioning another human being."

"So he doesn't like to talk about himself," says Marybeth. "That was one of the things I liked about him from the beginning."

There are times when LaFontaine's modesty is well founded, like the morning in December when he was relegated to skating on the fourth line in practice after a tie the previous night with the underwhelming St. Louis Blues. Simpson regarded the tie as a defeat. New York had led 2-0 and appeared to be in control. The Blues' first goal was the direct result of LaFontaine's probing too deep on an offensive foray, then failing to get back as left wing Perry Turnbull, his man, scored.

"If we put a $1,000 bill down there, you think he might beat Turnbull down the ice?" asked Simpson archly. Before signing on with the Islanders last season, Simpson coached the Prince Albert Raiders of the Saskatchewan Junior League for 14 seasons, and his team won the league championship every year from 1973 to '82. He will not tolerate one-dimensional play.

"Pat is on the brink of stardom, the elite, whatever," Simpson says. "His game is skating. But he can use that skating to do more than score goals—for aggressive forechecking and being a pest. He does that. He needs to do it all the time."

Torrey sees two athletes in one body. "The key to Patty is when he's really skating. When he has that extra spurt, he's bouncing and bumping and checking aggressively and forcing the play. That's when he can take a game into his own hands."

LaFontaine, who seems to save his biggest games for divisional rivals, has lately had his hands full. His second career hat trick, on Nov. 10, enabled the Isles to defeat Washington 4-3 in overtime. In two early-season wins over Philadelphia, LaFontaine was unstoppable, hurtling up and down the ice like Rocket Richard, checking in with six points. LaFontaine's 25th goal this season, his fourth in two nights, was sheer virtuosity. It came on Dec. 29 against the Rangers, tying the game 3-3 in the third period. LaFontaine fairly burst over the blue line and deked defenseman Jari Gronstrand three times—right, left, right again—nearly screwing him into the ice. Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck bought the second fake and sank to his knees. LaFontaine backhanded the puck over his left shoulder.

LaFontaine padded more than his scoring totals that night. The third period penalty summary read: LaFontaine, 2:00 high sticking, 2:00 roughing. This is a switch. In his first two seasons LaFontaine's most grievous offenses usually involved not folding the paper around his chewing gum before disposing of it.

His penalty minutes have expanded even as his chest measurement has increased, the result of a weightlifting regimen he has followed diligently for two years. Until LaFontaine began lifting, and watching his back, he regularly got crunched. It still happens, though less often. "And you might notice, I'm dishing it out, not just taking it," he said between sets of bench presses after a recent practice. "My body at 22 is different from my body at 19. My body at 25 will be different from my body at 22."

LaFontaine is evolving, like the club itself, which is relying less on such aging stalwarts as Denis Potvin, Ken Morrow and Billy Smith, and more on the youthful likes of, besides LaFontaine, Alan Kerr, Rich Kromm, Mikko Makela and Randy Wood. "He's matured not just as a player, but as a man," says assistant coach Bob Nystrom. "His work effort has improved."

LaFontaine still lacks Gretzky's peripheral vision and knack for playmaking, Mario Lemieux's strength and Trottier's appetite for contact. But by shoring up his weaknesses—playing better defense, taking the body, making the odd sojourn into the corners—while maintaining, even improving, his strengths, he is on the brink of genuine stardom. With 33 goals after 53 games, LaFontaine should score 50 goals this season, which would put him in the catbird seat when he renegotiates his contract next spring.

Bargaining-table battles aside, it is impossible for Torrey to disguise a trace of pride in his voice when discussing LaFontaine. "Adversity can be a pretty good teacher, and Patty's had his share of it. He's had some bad lows, and he's always come out of them stronger."

It's easier to do that, of course, when there's a steady supply of top-notch carrot cake in the kitchen, and you're taking a piece of home to work with you each day.

PHOTOANTHONY NESTELaFontaine could always score but is now known for durability and defense as well. PHOTOBRUCE BENNETTFor all his recently developed bulk, LaFontaine can still get crunched in the crease. PHOTOPAUL BERESEWILL[See caption above.] PHOTOPAUL BERESEWILLA hydraulic fitness machine develops LaFontaine's arms and gives his shot more oomph. PHOTOANTHONY NESTESince their wedding last spring, Marybeth has urged Pat to take his home to work.

Eagle (-2)
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