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IT'S OFFICIAL . . . LAFONTAINE GONE

It's ironic that Pat LaFontaine's first official duty as an ex-Buffalo Sabre will be to open the next chapter of his career against the team that wrote the first one: the New York Islanders.

"It's my intention to play in that game," the newest New York Ranger said after the deal to make him a Ranger finally came to fruition Monday night.

"I feel good, I'm ready to play. I'm prepared to play in that game."

LaFontaine's appearance against the Islanders Friday night in Madison Square Garden would complete an unusual cycle. It was the Rangers who gave LaFontaine, then playing with the Islanders, one of his most serious concussions. And it was his history of concussions that the Sabres say prompted the trade to the Rangers. That, and a $4.8 million dollar contract for each of the next two seasons. The Rangers chose to ignore the Sabres' medical opinions and made what could be a sweetheart of a deal to bring LaFontaine to New York.

The Rangers give up one second-round draft pick in 1998 and a conditional pick that sources have told The News cannot go beyond the second round in 1999. Thus, the Sabres get two draft picks and are rid of an obligation for $9.6 million salary over the next two seasons, but don't even get a warm body in return.

The ramifications of the transaction are huge for all parties.

For LaFontaine, who missed nearly all of last season with injuries related to a concussion he suffered Oct. 17, 1996, it's a chance to restart a career with a franchise willing to take on his salary and medical risks.

For the Rangers, it's a roll of the dice that provides them with either one of the game's most dynamic players or an at-risk player who might be one hard check away from retirement.

For the Sabres, it marks the end of an era of high profile and high-priced players that has seen them send away Alexander Mogilny, Dale Hawerchuk, Garry Galley and now LaFontaine.

The Sabres Monday evening said they could not clear LaFontaine to play and that their medical evidence -- evidence that they did not release to the media -- shows that the former captain should have retired.

Sabres president Larry Quinn said the evidence was timely and strongly worded.

"Three doctors gave medical opinions," Quinn said, "and those opinions were not going to be reversed."

However, neither Quinn nor general manager Darcy Regier could adequately explain why LaFontaine's doctors cleared him, or why doctors hired by the Rangers did the same thing. They insisted that based on medical evidence, their decision was the right one for LaFontaine, his family and the Buffalo Sabres.

In fact, Regier seemed to react emotionally to the issue of LaFontaine's risk and with concerns about his family.

The Rangers had a different point of view.

"I think that this is a gamble to the same extent any player who plays in the NHL who has had an injury to a very important part of his body," Rangers general manager Neil Smith said. "(Pat had a) major injury and missing 60 some odd games is a major injury. Certainly there are risks if the same area (his head) is hit again . . . but we've done extensive research into what the risks are. They are low enough that we want to go forward."

Smith said he couldn't explain why Ranger doctors and some specialists they brought in for consultation cleared LaFontaine to play and the Sabres doctors didn't, but he indicated that money was a primary focus from Buffalo's side.

"We found in Darcy Regier somebody who had a very intelligent approach to trying to get a trade accomplished," Smith said. "He realized what we were doing here and I realized we were taking on a player with great upside but a sizable contract . . . They apparently weren't willing to take on that responsibility."

LaFontaine said he had mixed feelings on the transaction. He was happy to be in a position to resume his career, but was sorry to leave Buffalo, both as a hockey player and a member of the community he called home for the past six seasons.

"I don't have any negative feelings," he said. "Maybe just near the end there were some things . . . a feeling of disappointment. You would hope people would have been capable of handling it much more professionally. All that said though, I don't look at these last three weeks as a reflection of six years in Buffalo. They were just a tiny speck on a lot of fond memories of playing for this organization and in this community. I have a lot of fond memories of Buffalo."

LaFontaine said that sports in general and hockey in particular weren't just a game or a business here, that they were a part of the fabric of the community and he enjoyed that.

"On a personal level, outside of the game, Marybeth (his wife) and I had a great opportunity to meet so many special people, especially children, who've been supportive and inspirational. The impact of those experiences have taught me a lot and made me feel fortunate to have met so many people in Western New York.

"That part of it, more than anything, will be very, very difficult to leave behind. It all started that I could play hockey (here) and then I was able to transfer my opportunity into being a part of the community. We made Western New York our home and any time you have to pick up and leave friends and acquaintances that have been a special part of your life, that's not an easy thing to do."

LaFontaine said playing in Buffalo was his first choice but it became clear early that it was not going to happen.

"The Sabres made their choice obvious and I can respect that," he said. "The disappointment was in the way it was handled."

LaFontaine said he has a lot of good hockey memories of his time spent here.

"I still remember the night I arrived and the reception I got from the fans here, that was nice. I'll always remember that.

"There was a time, for a couple of years, when we had one of the best power plays in the league; that was exciting," he said. "I remember the sweep of Boston in the playoffs (1993). That was really exciting. I remember the year I came back from my knee injury and scored 40 (goals, in 1995-96) was very special. That was the last night in the old building and I'll always remember that."

LaFontaine said he got the urge to play again watching his teammates in the playoffs.

"I felt I needed to see this thing through," he said. "Up to that point, I was uncertain, but as I started to feel better, I told myself I didn't want to have regrets five years down the road that I didn't give myself a last opportunity. I needed to have peace of mind and being honest with myself and my whole situation.

"Usually the hardest road is the right road," he added. "I have people who count on me and I would never do anything to put them at risk. I have experts in the field who say I can still play. It isn't time to let go of the game. That time will come, but right now there are still some things I want to be a part of."

Playing for a Stanley Cup contender is one of them. Playing on Team USA for the Olympics in Nagano is also a desire.

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