Four join hockey Hall
TORONTO -- John LaFontaine, Pat LaFontaine's father, tells a story about when his son first showed up at the New York Islanders training camp, a 19-year-old embarking on an NHL career that Monday night culminated with enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I remembered he called me and said: 'Dad, I met Mr. Trottier today. He was really nice to me. He's a great guy.'
"At that point I was used to my son being away because of hockey," the elder LaFontaine said, "but I also realized that my boy was moving into a stage of his life where he was playing with men. It was a defining moment and one that I felt was out of my control, but as time went on I felt fortunate that Bryan took a role in showing Pat the way. He was a big part of his life back then."
Back then ... and now.
Trottier -- the former Islanders captain, league MVP and a member of the Hall of Fame -- made an appearance at a private party for Pat LaFontaine, his family and friends Sunday night in a Toronto restaurant. They talked about old times, about their days together on Long Island and the bonds of friendship that were formed that endure to this day.
"He was like a second father to me. He took me under his wing and introduced me to the league and allowed me to be brought into that team," LaFontaine said Monday as he stood in the Hall of Fame across the room from where Trottier's sweater hangs. "I never forgot that as a young player just breaking in. Bryan Trottier was an inspiration to me, and as I look back on what happened to me and my career, I hope that maybe I can be an inspiration to others, to the kids who followed us and what we did."
"Us" includes fellow Hall of Fame inductees Grant Fuhr, a standout goalie for the Edmonton Oilers and several other teams, and a teammate and friend of LaFontaine when both played together in Buffalo during the early 1990s; Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch; and longtime junior hockey coach Brian Kilrea. The latter two entered under the builders category.
If there was a theme pulling all four men together on this day, it's this: While grateful for their success, they're also filled with a desire to extend the same joys they lived in hockey to those who might come after them.
"I had a lot of good things happen to me, but one of the things I'm most proud of was that World Cup we won a few years back while representing the USA," LaFontaine said.
The World Cup of hockey was a lightly noticed affair that fell between LaFontaine's first (1984) and last (1998) Olympic performances. LaFontaine took pride in the U.S. beating Canada in the gold-medal game.
"As a kid, I was inspired by that 1980 team [gold-medal winners at the Lake Placid Olympics]," LaFontaine said. "Those guys were a reason I got involved in hockey, and I'd like to think that maybe a few American-born kids saw that World Cup win, and maybe it inspired them to play the game as well. I think it would be nice to leave that kind of legacy, to let kids know that they can play for their country and compete on the world stage and maybe make it to the National Hockey League. It was my dream as a kid, and it came true."
The dream was much the same for Fuhr, the first person of color to be inducted into the Hall. Fuhr won five Stanley Cups, was a multitime All-Star, and represented Canada on three separate occasions in the Canada Cup. That fabled series often ended as a showdown between Canada and the omnipotent (back then) Soviet Union.
"I grew up in a little town just outside of Edmonton called Spruce Grove [Alberta]," Fuhr said. "I really didn't give much thought to anything in those days except playing, and it was fun, it was always fun. But now, looking back, I think I enjoy it even more. When you're young, I think maybe you don't appreciate everything that happens to you, and we had success, but it happened so fast, I don't think I ever really fully grasped it. If I could explain to kids anything about it, it would be that it gets better as you get older. You appreciate things a lot more, and you come to understand them better.
"The Cups and all that, they were fun and it was exciting, but in a sense, this is the ultimate thrill because it comes at a time when you can truly appreciate it. I feel like I'm being remembered for all time. I wish every kid could experience how that feels because it feels great.
"I watched the Oilers play when I was a kid and they were in the old World Hockey Association and it was in my hometown," added Fuhr. "All of a sudden I join them, and we're playing in the NHL, and now I'm following Jari [Kurri] and Wayne [Gretzky] into the Hall. I feel I was extremely fortunate to join a very special group of hockey players on a team that had great success."
Kilrea expressed similar sentiments from a different point of view. A longtime junior coach who has won more than 1,000 games, Kilrea came often to the Hall of Fame to look at the sweaters of those he had coached along the way.
"In a sense they're like my children," he said. "The wins are nice, but the thing I'm most proud of is that I had a hand in developing both the player and the person ... Not everybody you coach makes it to the Hall of Fame or to the National Hockey League, but they do become someone, and the thing I've enjoyed most is having a hand in that process."
Kilrea, who had a brief stint in the NHL and coached LaFontaine at that level for two seasons, said he never regretted coming back to junior hockey, riding the buses and working with the kids.
"It might be hard to understand," he said, "but I never felt it was hard -- it was fun. I like working with the kids, I've always liked that, and my assistant coaches, well, they've been with me for a long time, and it's more like being with friends. We would play a game, and then we would get on the bus, and we'd be like friends talking about the game and about hockey, and I gotta tell you that from time to time maybe I would enjoy a cigar or have a [beer], and the next thing you know we'd be home again, and it didn't seem like it took any time at all."
A minor hockey coach is a rarity for the Hall, but Kilrea is no less deserving than any other inductee. He won three consecutive American Hockey League championships as a player, played in the NHL with Los Angeles and Detroit, but made his mark by recording 1,000-plus wins, all with the Ottawa 67's.
"Hockey's been my life ever since I can remember," he said. "I wasn't a particularly good student, and I remember as a kid sitting in school and waiting for that clock to turn to 3 p.m. so I could get out on that ice and do the one thing I loved. I've been doing that every day since."
Like LaFontaine and Fuhr, Kilrea has immersed himself in the purest part of the game, working with youth. He said he considers himself the luckiest man in the world to have been recognized for doing something he loves, working with kids. Coaching hockey is more than a part of his life, he says -- it is his life.
"I had my chance in the NHL, and I enjoyed it, but most of all I learned from it," Kilrea said. "I took what I learned in the NHL, and I brought it back and shared it with the kids. I feel I've learned from everyone I've ever worked with, and one of the best things about my job is being able to share that with the kids."
Though he's perhaps most famous as owner of the Wings and the driving force behind the Little Caesars' pizza empire, Ilitch also talked about the relationship formed by his early days of hockey. He was a founding force behind the youth hockey movement in Detroit, a program that has some 900 games a season, serves 15,000 kids and has sent almost 30 players to the professional ranks.
LaFontaine was one of those kids, and he and Ilitch share a common bond from those days.
"Patty was someone we knew and had our eye on," Ilitch said. "We did pretty well with a fella by the name of Steve Yzerman, but I always thought of Pat and felt that we would have done pretty well with him too."
In his speech in the great hall where he, LaFontaine, Fuhr and Kilrea are now forever enshrined, Ilitch reminded everyone that buying a hockey team was an impulse thing, but one he never regretted.
"I was young and stupid," he said, "but it worked out pretty well. It's been a big part of my life and I like that. I like hockey and I like hockey players and it's been a big part of my life. I don't think I would have changed any of it."
On this day, all four men could say the same.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.