LaFontaine left an impression

Pat LaFontaine the player is a definite Hall of Famer. Pat LaFontaine the man is something more.

Updated: November 3, 2003, 6:28 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

Most anyone who has ever seen Pat LaFontaine play has a favorite story to tell.

For New York Islanders fans it might be the night he ended a four-overtime marathon playoff game with a spin-around slap shot, beating the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the 1987 division semifinals, one of the greatest National Hockey League playoff games ever played.

Pat LaFontaine
Pat LaFontaine played for all three New York state teams -- the Islanders, Sabres and Rangers -- in his 15-year career.
For Buffalo Sabres fans, it might be the night, playing on a shredded knee, that he fell to the ice but while lying chest-down at the red line still managed to get a breakaway pass off to teammate Brad May. The play enabled May to break in and score the overtime goal that snapped a 10-year string of first-round disappointments and carried the Sabres past the Boston Bruins and into the second-round of the 1993 playoffs, a time when the common perception was that the Sabres might never win a playoff round again.

For New York Rangers fans, well, we'd like to think it was something other than the night they attempted to tip over the ambulance in Madison Square Garden while LaFontaine, trying to get to the hospital because of a blow to the head, was still in it. Instead, it should be that he scored 62 points in 67 games as a Blueshirt before post-concussion syndrome terminated his career.

For me, it's personal. I saw a lot of Pat LaFontaine's games back when I was the beat writer for the Buffalo News. I chronicled pretty much every goal he scored, every one he set up, and every win, loss and tie. The memories would fill a book, but the one I remember best took place off the ice.

LaFontaine always carried a silent pager. When it went off, LaFontaine would read it, make a graceful exit from whatever he was doing and quietly make his way to Buffalo's Children's Hospital. There, he would enter through a private security gate for which he had a special pass. He would climb the steps to the floors where the terminally ill children were preparing to die and sit down next to one of them.

He was there to grant a wish -- that he would be there during the final hours of a child's life.

As many times as he could, LaFontaine honored that request. Sometimes the call would come at one or two in the morning, when we were just getting off a plane from a road trip. The rest of us -- players, management, and media -- would head home, anxious to be with our loved ones or to sleep in our own beds. LaFontaine headed for the Children's Hospital to say a prayer, hold a hand, tell a friend about his game and ease the fear of a child whose life would soon be over far before its time.

Pat LaFontaine's charitable works, especially with sick children, have always been well known, but he would never let me tell that part of the story back then. He hasn't given me the okay now, but I think you should know. It's not the reason he's being inducted Monday into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but it could be. Maybe even should be.

Not that the hockey numbers don't stand alone.

U.S.-BORN NHL POINTS LEADERS
Rk. Player (*-active) Points
1. Phil Housely 1,232
2. Jeremy Roenick* 1,081
3. Mike Modano* 1,067
4. Joe Mullen 1,063
5. Pat LaFontaine 1,013
As a hockey player, LaFontaine is every bit deserving of the honor as any great player at any time. He made an impact the moment he first burst onto the junior scene, an American-born star, a major player on the world stage.

He played a single season -- 1982-83 -- in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, during which he led the league with 104 goals, 130 assists and 234 points with the Verdun Juniors, won the rookie of the year, regular-season MVP, playoff MVP, best pro prospect and most sportsmanlike player awards. He broke Guy Lafleur's QMJHL record for points by a rookie, Mike Bossy's QMJHL record for goals by a rookie and was named player of the year of the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League. The Islanders picked him third overall in the 1983 draft.

After a season with the U.S. National Team and Team USA at the 1984 Olympics, LaFontaine hit the NHL, registering 468 goals and 545 assists for 1,013 points in 865 games, during a career that spanned 15 seasons with all three New York state teams. He holds the Buffalo franchise record for most points in a season (148), no small achievement in a book dominated by the legendary Gilbert Perreault, who also is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He also set up then-teammate Alexander Mogilny for a franchise high 76 goals during the 1992-93 season.

He missed most of the 1996-97 season, his sixth with the Sabres, due to post-concussion syndrome. He returned to the ice after being traded to the Rangers in September, 1997, and played in the 1998 Olympics before suffering a career-ending concussion in an accidental collision with Rangers teammate Mike Keane

Though he was forced to retire at 33, LaFontaine had long since established himself as one of the most exciting players to ever dominate the game, and one of its most charismatic and caring.

"The Hall is something you think about, but you don't really come to grips with it until it actually happens to you," he said. "I'm thrilled and I'm especially happy for Grant (Fuhr), a former teammate of mine. To be selected to the Hall, that's some pretty good company to be keeping.

"The other things, well, they are a part of my life now, I won't turn away just because I'm not in hockey anymore. You don't have to stop giving back just because your life moves to another chapter. I met a lot of wonderful people in Buffalo, people who touched my life and my family's lives in ways that you never forget."

As a person who has given something back to every community he ever played in, LaFontaine is every bit the Hall of Famer as he is a hockey player.

Seldom has the NHL seen a classier act.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.