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LAFONTAINE CRAMMED MUCH GREATNESS INTO SHORT STAY

I'll never forget the scene, or the look on his face. It was April, 1993, and the Sabres had just beaten the Bruins to win their first Stanley Cup series in 10 seasons. An exuberant Pat LaFontaine had finished with the initial wave of reporters and was walking, backwards, out of the locker room, headed for a TV interview.

"It's just the start, you know," LaFontaine said, loud enough for everyone to hear.

He was wrong, of course. Nothing ever approached that one, triumphant night in the Aud. Within days, LaFontaine was playing with an injured knee against Montreal. He never finished that series, and he never played in another winning playoff series for Buffalo.

You believed him that night. You figured there would be plenty of other moments, a lot of playoff heroics and a run at the Cup. Instead, with Patty expected to move downstate to the Rangers, Sabres fans are left to contemplate what might have been. He'll leave a legacy not of games won, but of games missed.

For many Western New Yorkers, the injuries and the disappointments don't really matter. They'll remember him as a rock in the community, a player who touched countless lives off the ice, a man with a genuine love and dedication to children.

Whenever we ran into each other, he asked about my daughters by their names. I believe he genuinely cared. He appreciated the fact that children were a common ground, a shared source of joy, ultimately more important than goals and interviews.

Still, it's as a player that I'll remember him best. In the end, that's why we care about the great athletes, because they perform with a special skill that grabs our imagination and makes us watch.

LaFontaine was that kind of player. An unquestioned superstar. It's easy for people to forget, since he missed roughly half of his team's games in his six seasons here. If some fans don't feel crushed by his leaving, maybe it's because they've become so practiced in missing him.

But when he played . . . my God, you should go watch the films of 1992-93 sometimes. Remember the 95 assists, the 148 points? Remember Rick Jeanneret's "La-la-la-la-la-la-LaFontaine!" calls, night after night?

LaFontaine averaged about 1 1/2 points a game with the Sabres. No one else has approached that figure, not Gil Perreault, not Pierre Turgeon, no one. He was the best playmaker this franchise has ever seen, one of the best ever to skate onto an NHL ice surface.

There's been so much talk about his community role and the team's dreadful handling of his attempted comeback that no one seems to be talking about LaFontaine, the star player.

He was as fast a skater as you ever saw. He had the quickness and vision, the uncanny anticipation and puckhandling that could light up an arena. He was at his best in the clutch. And yes, he was as tough as they come.

LaFontaine played hurt. He played for too long on a bad knee, then came back too soon from the surgery because he felt the team needed him. He came back too soon from the concussion. He gave a lot of his prime to this city and fans should never forget that, even if the organization seems to.

He is just what the Sabres need right now -- a dynamic offensive force, a leader, someone with the playmaking gifts to make scorers out of ordinary shooters. Yes, the Sabres won the division last season, but as the preseason showed, this offense is in need of talent.

No Sabre approaches his sheer offensive ability. Look at last year's pathetic power-play numbers, a reliable indication of a team's raw offensive talent.

Is there anyone on this team who can strike fear into an opposing team by skating onto the ice, the way LaFontaine did? Anyone who can paralyze a defense when the puck is on his stick? Anyone who can bring the fans to the edge of their seats, knowing how LaFontaine sees possibilities before they even develop?

No one knows if he can be that player again. But the Rangers can afford to take the gamble, and you have to envy them. The Sabres, who signed him to a long-term deal with the promise that they would build an arena around him and make a run at the Cup, didn't feel they could take that risk.

Sadly, Patty is leaving Buffalo the way he left the Islanders six years ago -- bitter at an ownership that went back on a promise and wasn't willing to pay what he was worth to make a run at the Cup.

Buffalo fans must be experiencing some of the feelings Islander fans did. Once the franchise no longer wants him, you can't help wondering if it ever really deserved him.

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