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PATTY, SABRES MAKE UP
BITTERNESS IS GONE AS LAFONTAINE RETURNS

Darcy Regier wasn't sure what to expect Tuesday morning when he walked into HSBC Arena. The Buffalo Sabres' general manager knew he would see Pat LaFontaine there, and they would stand face-to-face for the first time in seven years.

Seven years, it seems, was long enough.

"I'm not going to suggest time heals all, but it heals a lot," said Regier, who played a significant role in one of the most controversial sagas in Sabres history when he traded the popular captain to the New York Rangers in September 1997.

"I saw him in the office, and ironically there was no edge, no discomfort. But you don't know until you're in that situation. It was very relaxed. It was good to see him."

The anger, the bitterness, the wounds had disappeared.

On this day the feelings shared among LaFontaine, Regier and Larry Quinn were gracious.

LaFontaine, wearing a blue and gold jersey for the first time since he slipped a puck over the goal line to turn out the Memorial Auditorium lights in 1996, was in Buffalo to promote his NHL Legends/Companions in Courage charity hockey game Dec. 4 in HSBC Arena.

Sabres alums such as Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Danny Gare, Jim Schoenfeld and Craig Ramsay will skate against a celebrity team featuring actor Michael J. Fox, comedian Denis Leary and hockey luminaries Jim Craig, Wayne Cashman and Dave Schultz, to name a few.

The game will raise money to install an interactive playroom sanctuary for seriously ill kids at Women and Children's Hospital.

"Kids need to escape to a place where there are no nurses, no doctors," LaFontaine said. "This will be an environment for healing."

LaFontaine and the Sabres have done some healing of their own.

Quinn, who reached out to the Hall of Famer two years ago, introduced him as "my friend." The first of many people LaFontaine thanked at the lectern was Quinn.

"Any time you leave a place that you loved and were a part of, there is a healing process," LaFontaine said after the news conference. "There's a letting go of that emotional tie. You move forward, and you forgive and say, 'It is what it is.' "

Said Regier: "It's not about sweeping things under the carpet. It's about forgiving and forgetting. It's gone. It's done."

The Sabres did not invite LaFontaine to training camp in the fall of 1997, even though he still had two seasons and $9.6 million left on his contract.

Team doctors were refusing to let him try to come back from his fifth concussion. In October 1996 Francois Leroux of the Pittsburgh Penguins elbowed LaFontaine in the head and knocked off his helmet. LaFontaine's head bounced off the ice. Concussion symptoms ended his season after 13 games.

LaFontaine, however, claimed the training camp snub had more to do with his hefty salary and his allegiance to Ted Nolan, the reigning NHL coach of the year who had been cast aside by Quinn and Regier.

Two renowned neurologists cleared LaFontaine to play. He was adamant he would skate again. He was only 32 years old. Two seasons earlier he netted 40 goals. He was on his way to 500 for his career.

The Sabres traded him to the Rangers for a second-round draft pick that eventually brought young enforcer Andrew Peters.

"I needed to play. I really did," LaFontaine said. "Something was telling me I wasn't finished. There was something inside me that said, 'You need to see this through,' and the fact I had a chance to play and move forward truly allowed me to have closure on my career.

"That hit, if I wouldn't have played again, would have haunted me regardless of anything else."

Of course, there was another hit. He proved he could still play, recording 23 goals and 39 assists through his first 67 games of 1997-98. But his sixth concussion in seven years occured on a freak collision with Rangers teammate Mike Keane. It ended LaFontaine's career.

His brain eventually healed. Apparently so has his heart.

"When I was asked to come back here, and it was the guys who were there before -- Larry and Darcy -- I thought that was a really awesome gesture," LaFontaine said. "The fact they've come together with the Sabres Alumni, I was very touched."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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