Pat LaFontaine said his return to the Buffalo Sabres was hatched over the last 10 days. LaFontaine, one of the team’s all-time greats and a newly hired vice president of development and community affairs for the NHL, was in Florida to attend a seminar on concussions. So was Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
LaFontaine, of course, knows the topic well. Head trauma caused the Sabres to refuse to let him back on the ice in 1997 and it ended his NHL career with the New York Rangers a year later.
LaFontaine and Pegula went to dinner. The topics around their steaks included youth hockey, college hockey, the new Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State. The conversation finally turned to the struggling Sabres.
The two men ended up continuing the chat on Pegula’s boat and that’s when LaFontaine, now 48, said Pegula started to talk turkey.
“He was the one who said, ‘Well, you just started a job’ but he started to get into where he thought I could help the team,” LaFontaine said Wednesday. “I wasn’t expecting it whatsoever. I even waited the next day, went through all the meetings and wasn’t sure if he wanted to go on.”
Pegula was dead serious, even wanting to know if LaFontaine wanted to be the general manager.
“One thing led to another and it was like, ‘Wow, this guy is pretty impressive,’ ” Pegula said. “I guess I popped the question, ‘Do you think you could be the GM?’ And he said, ‘No I can’t be a GM.’ But he said, ‘Here’s what I think I can do.’ ”
What LaFontaine is doing is reviving faith in a front office that had lost all of the belief of its fans.
In the newly created role of president of hockey operations, he brought Ted Nolan on as interim head coach. And he will push forward to hire a replacement for outsted General Manager Darcy Regier. And Sabres fans should know this point: “Suffering” isn’t in LaFontaine’s vocabulary.
“I wouldn’t use that word,” LaFontaine said when asked about the catchphrase Regier uttered in May that will forever cloud much of his 16 years here. “I would use ‘patience’ and understand there’s a direction. If the fans know there’s leadership and direction and they know there’s good people in place and start to see it happening on the ice and see the product, they’re going to support it.
“Fans in Buffalo are smart. They know hockey. They know people. The first thing we want to know is that those players are supported and we expect nothing but their best efforts every night.”
LaFontaine was an icon of Buffalo sports in the mid-’90s as the Bills were going to Super Bowls and the Sabres were filling the nets with goals like it was the 1970s all over again.
He played here from 1991 to 1997, piling up 385 points in just 268 games. In the unforgettable 1992-93 season, LaFontaine set franchise records for points (148) and assists (95) while setting up many of Alexander Mogilny’s franchise-record 76 goals.
He retired from the NHL in 1998 as the second highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history (1,013 points, including 468 goals). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and his number 16 was hoisted to the rafters of then-HSBC Arena in 2006.
“I’ve only had the opportunity to shake his hand but I know how people think of him in this community, let alone what he’s done in his hockey career,” said Sabres captain Steve Ott. “That’s instant respect in my department. You always want a guy that played the game, has been through the war and trenches and Patty is one of those guys.”
Goaltender Ryan Miller said he has talked to LaFontaine several times over the years when LaFontaine has returned to town.
“His heart is in a good place and he has a connection with Buffalo,” Miller said. “I think that’s a good thing to have these connections, people who care about the community and understand what it’s all about. It’s a good way to get some of the guys on this team up to speed.”
Miller correctly noted how the struggles of the franchise since 2007, with no playoff series victories in that time, has cooled the fervor of the fan base. LaFontaine’s return can rekindle that.
And that’s even when you consider his front office experience is limited to just a few weeks in 2006 with the New York Islanders, a post he abruptly quit after interference from owner Charles Wang, and his role with the NHL that only started last month.
“The passion hasn’t died down but we want to get the excitement level back up,” Miller said. “I think that’s when you truly understand what it means to play for the Sabres and be a Buffalo Sabre and what we as a group mean in the community. That’s where we have to kind of reconnect.”
The player beloved by fans and hailed by broadcaster Rick Jeanneret’s famous goal calls of “La-La-La-La-La-La-LaFontaine” could be just the man to do it.
“We are in this for the long run and there is a system that’s set up right now,” LaFontaine said when asked about what’s become a broken franchise. “There’s a lot of ways to build a team. We have to be patient, smart and selective and it won’t happen overnight.”
“He is a class individual,” Pegula said. “And he’s going to add a lot of energy to our organization.”