Pat LaFontaine was home Saturday morning when the text arrived. It was his son, Danny, with some welcome, unexpected news. The Canisius freshman had told his father earlier in the week that he would be scratched against Niagara. Hours before faceoff, he learned he was playing.
Hockey fans knew LaFontaine as a Hall of Fame player during his 15-year career in the NHL. Western New Yorkers knew him as a classy humanitarian whose selflessness on the ice carried into the community. His top post-hockey mission was building playrooms for sick children in hospitals.
But if you ask him, he’s a father.
“Exactly,” LaFontaine said. “I had my time. I love it. I enjoyed it. I was very fortunate and blessed. Once you have kids, it’s kids first and your family. I’ve been blessed to have the time to be around my family and watch them grow up. When you have these opportunities, you don’t want to miss them.”
LaFontaine learned his son would play Saturday at 9:36 a.m. He purchased the last seat on a noon flight on JetBlue, drove from his home on Long Island to JFK Airport and arrived at the HarborCenter just before the 3:05 p.m. faceoff. He was there to see Daniel score in a 3-3 tie with the Purple Eagles.
Pat LaFontaine wore a Canisius Hockey cap and watched by himself while shaking hands with fans in between periods. NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk stopped to see him. Olczyk was in town to watch the game and spend an evening with his son, Eddie Jr., an assistant coach under Dave Burkholder at Niagara.
Danny LaFontaine pounced on a loose puck in the crease and lifted a shot to give the Griffs a 2-1 lead in the second period. If the people watching the game didn’t notice who made the play, they knew when the goal was announced. Someone in the crowd began singing “La-La-La-LaFontaine” in front of press row.
All in all, Jan. 16, 2016 – or 1-16-16 – was a great day for No. 16 and his 20-year-old son, who was born May 20, 1995, and happens to wear No. 20.
“It’s awesome,” the younger LaFontaine said. “He’s been to a few home games this year. It’s always great to have him fly up to Buffalo. He makes a lot of home games, and it’s great to have him. … I just see him as my dad. He’s not much different from any other parent. He’s always been Dad to me.”
“He’s the same as all the other dads as far as most people are concerned here,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “Because his son is here, people are looking around for him. He deals with it every day. I know as a parent myself, it’s always fun watching our kids play. When I talk to Pat, it’s about the joys of being a parent.”
The opportunity to see his son play was one reason LaFontaine planned to stay in Buffalo while helping to rebuild the Sabres. For former team president Ted Black to suggest he wanted to spend more time with his family in New York, while pushing him out the door, was utter nonsense.
What exactly happened between him and the Sabres and why? We may never know the full truth. LaFontaine signed a confidentiality agreement when he was forced to resign. Kim and Terry Pegula haven’t been forthcoming about most decisions involving either of their struggling franchises, including his exit.
My read, based on numerous conversations with people close to the situation: LaFontaine was building a front office that excluded certain Pegula underlings such as Black and Joe Battista. They felt threatened by his power, feared for their futures and used petty office politics to drive a wedge between LaFontaine and Kim Pegula.
The whole thing was asinine, childish and unnecessary. LaFontaine was polite but said little when asked about his exit Saturday.
“It’s been pretty well-documented,” he said. “Do I wish I was here? You know, I came here with a big intention. I’m really enjoying being at the National Hockey League. I enjoyed the time here even though it was short. I did enjoy it. I was happy to see things go in a certain direction as far as the focus and the energy.”
Saturday wasn’t about LaFontaine and the Sabres. It was about a father and a son. Danny LaFontaine had been nagged by a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for the two-plus weeks. He scored his goal from a dirty area to give Canisius the lead. In overtime, he was unable to capitalize on a bouncing puck with the net open in overtime. He has scoring chances, which is always a good sign.
He has four goals this season while trying to earn more playing time for the Griffs. The goal Saturday was his fourth in 11 games. Canisius had been getting 62 percent of its scoring from its top line before second-line center Dylan McLaughlin scored on his first shift and LaFontaine netted the second goal.
In the balcony, largely out of view while sitting behind a beam overlooking the net where his son scored, LaFontaine was smiling the way any proud father would. Afterward, a father and son walked out of HarborCenter and grabbed dinner, like any father and any son after a hockey game.
“When you’re a freshman, you work through things,” LaFontaine said. “He’s working hard. He really loves the school and his team. He’s proud to be a Golden Griff. Me? I’m just here to watch him play.”