This was not what Marybeth LaFontaine really wanted. She sat in
the good seats in Madison Square Garden and watched her husband
come onto the ice two weeks ago with the rest of the New York
Rangers as the lights on the scoreboard whirled and flashed and
as that song Tubthumping, by Chumbawamba, was played as loud as
possible on the sound system--"I get knocked down. But I get up
again. You're never going to keep me down"--and she didn't know
if she could watch.
What if her husband got knocked down? What if he didn't get up,
if he got knocked out again? What if...? A columnist for the
Ottawa Citizen, Allen Panzeri, had written as the season began,
"Watching Pat LaFontaine play hockey this year is like going to
an automobile race to see the crashes. You're not really
watching for the goals and the assists, you're watching for the
wrecks." That was as good a description as any.
"I don't know how this is going to go," Marybeth said to Tammy
Keane, the wife of Rangers winger Mike Keane. "I don't know if I
can take it."
The memories of less than a year ago were too fresh. This was
the 18th game back for Pat, an undersized, 32-year-old center,
from the grim aftereffects of a fifth concussion, which had
caused him to miss most of last season. This was Marybeth's
first game back. She had been wrapped up in the business of
closing the old house outside Buffalo, setting up the new house
in Greenwich, Conn., moving the three kids and two dogs from one
place to the other and finding new doctors and schools and dry
cleaners, taking care of everything in slightly more than a
month. Unpacked boxes still filled the new house. The
babysitter, Mokey McCarthy, brought from Buffalo to help for a
week, was in her third week on the job.
Now, finally, there was time to watch Pat play. As she settled
into her seat, Marybeth couldn't help thinking that everything
could have been so much easier, so much safer. Stay in the old
house, the one she and Pat had built to their specifications.
Live the same life they'd lived for most of their 10 years of
marriage. Take the guaranteed contract for almost $10 million
for the next two years. Retire. Maybe some doctors had cleared
Pat to play again, to take chances, but hadn't almost everyone
else told him to be smart, to grab the money, to begin to live
the rest of his life? Hadn't she told him the same thing? "I
couldn't do what you're doing," she had told him, flat out. "I
wouldn't do it."
The game, hockey, scared her now. She had seen what it could do.
"He was very emotional," Marybeth says, describing the bad times
of a year ago. "I would walk into a room, and he would be
crying. He cried a lot. Or he would be holding his head from the
migraine headaches. They were terrible. He wouldn't leave the
house for a week. He wouldn't change his clothes, wouldn't
shower. It was all the classic signs of depression. I thought he
was having a nervous breakdown."
Pat, a bouncy 5'10", 180-pound perfectionist who had almost
willed himself into becoming arguably the best U.S.-born player
in history, the star of the Buffalo Sabres, had been replaced by
a zombie, a husk. His skin was pale. His eyes, the same wide
eyes that had caused teenage girls to leave phone numbers and
undergarments on his car when he was a 19-year-old playing for
the New York Islanders, were now glassy. A man of many interests
now had interest in nothing.
On Oct. 17, 1996, he was dropped by a hit from 6'6", 236-pound
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Francois Leroux. The blow from
Leroux's left elbow was to the left side of LaFontaine's head.
As he fell, his helmet came off. He struck the right side of his
head on the ice and went out cold. At first there didn't seem to
be a problem. He regained consciousness after a few minutes, and
though he sat out the rest of the game, he was able to drive
himself home. He missed the next game but was back one week
after the injury to play against the Montreal Canadiens. He
appeared in six more games. He was fine.
No, he wasn't. The depression had landed in a thick cloud in his
head. His hand-eye coordination had gradually disappeared. The
migraines had begun. He couldn't remember the simplest things.
He was gone, off to a different, scary world. Before the final
game he tried to play, against the Philadelphia Flyers, he gave
an emotional speech to the Sabres, an apology for the way he was
performing. Buffalo coach Ted Nolan pulled him from the lineup.
It was time to get help.
The Sabres sent him to the Mayo Clinic. An earlier MRI had
indicated he had suffered no brain damage from the concussion.
The more extensive tests at Mayo changed the diagnosis. He had
suffered a bruise on the frontal lobe of his brain, the area
responsible for personality and moods. The Oct. 17 concussion
was the final blow, but the four earlier concussions (the first
in 1990) had contributed to his condition.
"Do you feel like somebody ripped out all of your enthusiasm?" a
neurologist at Mayo asked.
"Yes!" LaFontaine almost shouted. "Where'd it go?"
The neurologist used the analogy of a car operating on a reserve
tank of gas. LaFontaine had been working on the reserve tank for
a while. The final concussion had emptied the tank. The pieces
of his memory, of his personality, that were missing would
return, the tank would be refilled sometime in the future, but
the only treatment was rest. The brain had to heal. LaFontaine
would have to wait inside this new self for his old self to
return. This would not be easy. "I had difficulty coping with
the smallest things," he says. "I couldn't even watch a hockey
game on television. I'd try, but the speed was too much for me.
I couldn't keep up with what was happening."
One miserable day followed another. Marybeth and Pat's eldest
daughter, Sarah, who was six at the time, had an incident on a
school bus. One of the other kids told her, "Your daddy's
stupid. All his brains fell out on the ice." She came home in
tears. The Sabres suggested that maybe the family should take a
trip south, try the good weather. They went to Disney World.
Even the tamest rides, the kiddie rides, made Pat's head hurt.
Marybeth said he looked green.
When he came back to Buffalo, though, he started to feel better.
This was in mid-February. The tank was refilling. The enthusiasm
was coming back. LaFontaine started skating again. He started
hanging around the Sabres again. At first he felt like a
stranger--"like when you go back to high school four years after
you graduate and everything seems changed," he says--but the
tank kept refilling. He felt more and more at ease. He began
participating in noncontact drills. He started thinking about
"I was never going to do anything foolish," says LaFontaine. "My
family always was first, hockey second. If I was ever told that
I would be at a greater risk than anyone else playing the game,
then I was prepared to quit. I'd had 14 years in the league, and
I was prepared to go home. To retire."
The medical clearance didn't come until the summer. He took more
tests than a prospective astronaut. The results from his doctors
indicated he was fine. Three neurosurgeons told him he would be
at no greater risk of long-term repercussions than anyone else
who had suffered a first concussion. He said he was ready to
rejoin the Sabres.
The Sabres weren't ready for him. They had thought he would
retire, and their doctors suggested he should. The money they
would have had to set aside to pay him--$4.8 million--had mostly
been spent. If he had retired, insurance would have paid 80% of
the contract, and Buffalo would have paid the rest.
On Sept. 29, five days before the Rangers' season opener, Pat
was traded to New York for a second-round draft choice and
future considerations. He and Marybeth have been on the move
ever since. Only now was there time for her to catch up with
him, to stop for a moment. To watch a game.
He looked small on the ice, the way he has always looked, even
while he was racking up 454 career goals and 512 assists. He
looked fast, shifty, daring, the way he's always looked. The
average size of the players around him had increased by maybe an
inch in height, by maybe 10 or 15 pounds since he started in
1984, to more than 6'1" and more than 210 pounds. The New Jersey
Devils' defensemen were dangerous hulks. He was a mouse
challenging a succession of big cats.
"You can't carry skeletons when you come on the ice in this
league," Rangers coach Colin Campbell said recently. "Especially
a guy like Patty. He's a puck-oriented player. He's always going
to be in the middle of the action. At his size he can't take
even five percent off his game and still be effective. He has to
play the way he always has."
The usual perils of playing a game bounded by wooden and
Plexiglas walls seemed magnified. LaFontaine's only concessions
to his injury were a tighter, more padded helmet,
double-strapped around his jaw, and a mouth guard to help absorb
the impact of collisions. The unwritten rule during the regular
season is that players shouldn't look for particular numbers to
hit, that the hits should arrive according to situations, but
Campbell felt players had been looking for LaFontaine, testing
him. Then again, the puck-oriented player always gets hit.
In the first period LaFontaine was hit hard. Sliding past New
Jersey center Doug Gilmour, he was caught in a small tunnel of
space, a corridor between Gilmour and the boards near the New
York bench. Devils defenseman Scott Stevens was coming from the
other end of the corridor. "Everyone's fair game," Stevens would
say later. "The way I've always been taught, you try to hit the
best player on the ice. I saw it was Pat. Sure, I knew it was
Stevens lowered his shoulder. LaFontaine went flying. There was
a moment--there will always be a moment for him now--when there
was uncertainty if he would get up. But in a bound he was back
on his skates, zipping toward the Devils' zone. He finished the
game without incident.
"Did you see that hit?" Marybeth was asked after the Rangers had
"I saw it," she replied. "It was the hit of the game, wasn't it?"
She stayed for the whole game because she wanted to show her
love for Pat and her support for what he was doing. This didn't
mean she enjoyed it. She was nervous the entire time. No matter
how well he plays--and he is playing well (at week's end he was
leading the Rangers in scoring with 13 goals and 15
assists)--there will always be that "what if."
Marybeth says he tried to explain himself one day. He used an
analogy. He asked her to think of something she liked to do,
loved to do. Something like ... shopping. Suppose she were
injured while she was shopping and, for a while, it appeared
that she could never shop again. Suppose, then, she started
feeling better. Suppose she talked to a number of doctors who
assured her that she could go back to shopping. That there would
be no risk. Wouldn't she go back? Wouldn't she shop again?
"I'd shop from home," was her reply. "I'd shop from catalogs."
That option, alas, is not available in hockey.