Pat LaFontaine departed Buffalo for Syracuse this morning, a motor vehicle his transportation of choice, although he could just as easily have sailed the Thruway on tears of appreciation.
LaFontaine was immensely popular during his six seasons as a Buffalo Sabre. He had - still has - the looks of a matinee idol. His smile was easy, warm and engaging. He had the uncanny ability of meeting someone once and knowing the name forever.
We watched him hit the height of his National Hockey League career in 1992-93, when he set the Sabres' scoring record of 148 points. We watched him suffer through the lowest lows, including a series of concussions that drove his career to a premature conclusion. And we heard that he was active in the community, that he gave freely of his time, although what exactly that meant was unclear until he appeared at Barnes and Noble on Niagara Falls Boulevard Wednesday night to promote his new book, "Companions In Courage."
Rhonda Rehanek of Niagara Falls was trembling as she approached LaFontaine at the signing table. He smiled. She asked if he remembered what he had done for her daughter, Jessica Beyer. He said that he did.
Rehanek's breaths grew short and shallow. Her lips stiffened. She was battling for her composure but it was a fight she could not win. She reached for a damp, crinkled tissue. Her husband, Todd, put a steadying arm on her shoulder. LaFontaine rose and embraced her. It has been 6 1/2 years since Jessica Beyer, 5 years old, died of cancer. Rhonda's gratitude for the comfort LaFontaine brought to her child will never subside.
"You can't even know what he's done for us," she said.
What he did was visit Jessica only to find she wasn't much of a Sabres fan. Her passion was the Bills. LaFontaine nodded and mentioned he was having lunch with Thurman Thomas that day.
"Two days later Thurman Thomas called our home to talk to Jess," Rehanek said. "He called our home."
The necktie design contest has become a tradition among young patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. In 1994, Jessica's creation was declared the winner. The presentation was scheduled for Nov. 14. LaFontaine stood in her place. Jessica had died that morning.
"He's unique," Rehanek said. "He's a gem."
Forty-five minutes before the 7 p.m. appearance more than 150 people already had taken a number so that LaFontaine would sign their book. Or, in many cases, multiple books. There was much reminiscing, not about goals and assists, but of the eulogy LaFontaine gave for one child, or his presence as a pallbearer at the funeral for another, and other unpublicized acts that fell under the nebulous heading "active in the community."
In a short address that preceded the session, LaFontaine referred to "Companions In Courage" as "a calling." The book details the achievements of athletes and children, many of them from Western New York, who confronted adversity of various forms. It's already hit the best-seller's list in the Toronto Globe & Mail.
He spends his free time these days in Connecticut, where he owns a fledgling home renovation company that already has refurbished five houses, including his own. He is the spokesman for the Hockey All-Star Kids Foundation, the charity that benefits from his proceeds of the book. His goal is to put a game room in every children's hospital, "to have places where the players can come visit these kids and have an environment where they can get away from the hospital maybe just mentally for awhile."
He believes more than ever in providence. Had not post-concussion syndrome waylaid his career his father, John, never would have accompanied him on a visit to the Mayo Clinic, never would have visited with that expert urologist, never would have been rid of a potent cancer destined to kill him if his prostate hadn't been removed.
If he were still playing for the Rangers - and at age 35, that's more likely than not - he would have been in Montreal the night his son Daniel, 5 1/2 , broke away for his first career goal.
"He grabbed a puck at the red line; he had a semibreakaway. And as he was falling down he shot to the far corner and it hit the post and went in," LaFontaine said. "He threw his arms up in the air and the next shift he came out and took his glove off and held up his finger. "First goal.' And every shift after that he was waving to me. It was the best goal I ever saw. I was a proud father."
And if LaFontaine were still in the NHL "Companions In Courage" might never have come to fruition, its stories of inspiration forever untold.
"I'd probably still be playing today," LaFontaine said. "Things do happen for a reason."
Bonnie Hoffmeister of North Tonawanda is 58 years old and crazy about hockey. She's been a LaFontaine fan since the day he became a Sabre. She bought his book two weeks ago and lived the interim in anticipation of this day.
She arrived at the bookstore at 5 p.m., not on her own but with her husband, Carl, because her legs don't have the stamina and Carl has to maneuver the wheelchair.
She held her ticket, No. 1, in one hand and two books in the other. She's giving them to two of her children, so they might benefit from the stories within.
"He wished me well," she said of her meeting with LaFontaine. "And he gave me a kiss, which was the highlight."