Pat LaFontaine was crossing the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the United States on Tuesday when a customs agent examined his passport, peered into the driver’s side window and recognized the Hall of Fame center sitting behind the wheel.
“You should be running the Sabres,” the agent said.
“You know,” LaFontaine said with a smile, “maybe I will be someday.”
LaFontaine’s story, which he shared Wednesday after he was introduced as the Sabres’ president of hockey operations, sounded eerily similar to a tale Ted Nolan told when he was hired to coach Buffalo in 1995. At the time, a customs agent told Nolan to open his trunk to make sure he was bringing some “blood and guts” over the Peace Bridge.
The Sabres’ stream of competence was surreal Wednesday. Did they really fire Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston? Did they really replace them with LaFontaine and Nolan? It was like a strange dream, but this time bliss wasn’t interrupted by an alarm clock or the kids slamming the front door on their way to school.
It actually happened. It really did.
And it still comes back to bridges.
LaFontaine and Nolan were two of the most popular figures in franchise history. They’re a bridge that connects the organization to a better time in the past, a bridge that takes us back to the pre-Regier days. Their job now is rebuilding the bridges that Regier burned in the 16-plus years that he served as general manager.
Rest assured LaFontaine’s trunk is loaded with people skills, hockey knowledge, class and integrity. He brings instant credibility to an organization that had almost none. Don’t let his friendly smile, warm persona and charm fool you.
He was fiercely competitive and cold-hearted as a player, when he had an enviable hint of filth in his game.
It makes him ideal.
We’ll see if he gets the right people around him, but at least you believe he can. That’s a monumental upgrade for this organization. His arrival will work wonders for Terry Pegula, one of many in a long line whose reputation suffered at the hands of Regier. The latest move gives the impression that ownership is serious about winning.
“You don’t get to this level of hockey without work ethic and passion and a burning desire to be the best,” LaFontaine said. “You can transfer that to what I’m doing now. It’s not about one person. It’s going to take everybody. When you get everyone on board and the train leaves the station, we’ll see who gets on board.”
As for Regier, I never ripped him strictly for sport. It’s not how I get my jollies. For me, it’s about getting it right and sharing opinions with people who invested thousands of dollars on a faulty train that had the wrong conductor and was doomed to fall off the tracks.
Nolan is the kind of man who would throw himself in front of a train if it meant winning. He knows plenty about the inequities of life. The entitled children on his roster are going to have a difficult time convincing him that they’ve had it tough. He’s been kicked around for years, but he keeps coming back.
And why? Because that’s all he knows.
Some players will loathe him. Most will love him. The smart ones will listen to him. Nolan’s strength is getting the most out of young players. Back in the day, he could motivate the bark off a tree. The 1995-96 Sabres were terrible in his first season, but they were among the most beloved teams in franchise history.
For however long he’s here, his players are going to show up with passion, energy and resourcefulness that Buffalo fans should demand all along. It’s either that or they’re not going to play. They can bet their last unearned dollar that LaFontaine, his longtime friend and confidant, will tolerate nothing less.
See, these guys get it.
How long will it take to get it right? Who will be the next general manager? Will Nolan stay beyond this season? All are valid questions that eventually will be answered. Building a playoff team doesn’t take five years, as many suspect. LaFontaine alone makes Buffalo more attractive than it was under Regier.
It’s true for players and prospective GMs. Is this where I mention that Rick Dudley lives in Lewiston? The Bruins have a good man in former Sabres scout Jim Benning. Jason Botterill is considered a top young executive. Claude Loiselle has a good reputation in Toronto. Neil Smith’s name is out there, but that’s unlikely.
Just know that it will get better. That’s guaranteed. Thank Regier, who made sure before getting the heave-ho that it couldn’t get any worse.
“Hockey fans here in Buffalo, they’re smart,” LaFontaine said. “They know hockey. They know people. Like Teddy said, we’re in the entertainment business. We expect nothing but their best efforts every night. My job is to make sure they have everything they need to do their jobs.”
It was fitting Wednesday that Nolan sat at the table alongside LaFontaine and between Pegula and Ted Black. Pegula and Black were outsiders who needed two men on the inside to truly understand Buffalo. The Sabres wasted three years with Regier, who claimed he knew the region but never had a clue.
Finally, the owner listened to somebody.
Pegula, stubborn to a fault, could have saved himself the aggravation if he would have listened to the right people when he arrived. He would have noticed hypocrisy that accompanied Regier before and after Pegula showed up. He would have realized how often Regier revised history at the expense of others.
If you remember, it was Regier who offered Nolan a one-year contract after he led the Sabres to a division title and was named Coach of the Year. Why only one year? Regier said he needed a year to get to know Nolan. The offer was rejected. Regier turned around and signed Lindy Ruff, with whom he also had no relationship, to a three-year deal.
The public outrage was so intense that a legion of fans marched outside the arena in support of Nolan. Jean Knox, the widow of former owner Seymour Knox III, was among the protesters. She had a strong relationship with Nolan. They spoke the same language and were widely respected across the community.
Regier sang a different tune.
“One thing about culture and environment, you have to create it,” LaFontaine said. “You have to build an environment where there’s trust and respect. But then the players have to want to conform to that environment, too. Your words have to fit your music. It’s not just saying it. It’s action.”
LaFontaine was the first of many captains who were sent packing. He was involved in a dispute over his concussion when Regier traded him to the Rangers. LaFontaine forgave him for showing him the exit, but he never forgot. Neither did many others who had deep respect for LaFontaine. Regier missed that point, too.
Regier did some good things during his tenure. He made a few good trades along the way. He was a voice of reason when the Rigases were headed for prison. He’s not a bad human being. He’s a bad general manager. He kept the wrong players for too long and let the right ones get away. He was slow to make decisions.
He didn’t fully understand chemistry or the value of intangibles. He alienated numerous players on his team, people in his organization, alumni, scouts, other general managers. The list seems endless. They snickered behind his back and mocked the organization, especially in recent years when his ineptitude grew more obvious.
Regier allowed lame excuses to pour from the organization. It was always injuries or money or bad luck or officiating or youth or the media. It was never him admitting total failure when, in fact, total failure eventually caught up to him. It ultimately led to his biggest mistake, which was alienating you.
Shockingly, it was the last bridge to fall.
The sellouts continued after he warned fans that they would suffer, after he claimed a total rebuild was in order when it wasn’t necessary, after he said it was in the plans since the Paul Gaustad trade. It was fine because he was only embarrassing himself, but it was a different story when the Sabres started embarrassing you, if not Pegula.
LaFontaine arrived just in time to start running the Sabres. It was a matter of time before fans started running from the Sabres. He’s back in Buffalo with the intention of building bridges and leading the organization over the final one. Who’s on board? Just so you know, it’s going to take blood and guts.
Let the man through.