Pat LaFontaine coaching a top LI junior club
After practice was over, Pat LaFontaine was a little hoarse, which says something about him and about the practice. Sometimes a coach just has to yell.
Yes, LaFontaine still is effusively polite, as he was throughout his Hall of Fame hockey career. Sure, he still spends his days planning, funding and opening high-tech playrooms for children's hospitals. Of course, he understands the pressures facing the 15- and 16-year-old players on his Long Island Royals national squad, a roster that includes his son Daniel.
Still, when the skating doesn't go the way it should, LaFontaine has no problem channeling the tough-minded coach who had a bit of success on Long Island.
"I told our kids tonight, 'You know what Al Arbour used to say? I don't care if the roof is coming down. Stay focused on your job and execute the game plan,' " the coach said in a small room just off the red line at Superior Ice Rink in Kings Park.
LaFontaine wants to share what he learned from Arbour, from former Sabres and Islanders coach Ted Nolan and from everyone else who helped him from Detroit youth hockey to stardom with Verdun of the Quebec league to the Olympics and into the NHL. LaFontaine wants to bring the best out of his Royals and wants them to get the best out of a sport he still loves, even though his own career was cut short by concussions.
"With kids of this age, their bodies are developing, their minds are developing. I try to instill with them the importance of showing up focused and prepared for every practice, every shift, every game," he said.
It works. The Royals are an elite team with a 50-5-3 record, ranked third in the country by myhockey.com. They won the Atlantic Youth Hockey League playoffs last weekend and will play in the New York State championships next weekend. They rallied from a 6-0 deficit in the third period to beat the vaunted Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota (Sidney Crosby's former team). They beat a Philadelphia opponent at Citizens Bank Park as part of the NHL Winter Classic weekend.
What's more, LaFontaine's presence has made the Royals a national phenomenon. The season is being chronicled on the NHL Network TV series, "Making of a Royal."
"We talked to the kids about it. We let them know this is a privilege to be chosen by the National Hockey League to have a documentary made about this season," he said. "Enjoy it, but with that comes responsibility."
Responsibility translates into hard work. "I realize now as the head coach, I can be a little more on the stern side," he said. "I remember Al was like that. Al was tough, especially on the young guys. I always went to Lorne Henning and Lorne would say, 'I think this is what Al wants you to do more.' "
Playing the role of Lorne Henning with the Royals is assistant coach Steve Webb, a former Islanders tough guy whom you'd think would be the gruff one. "Webbie is more the softie," LaFontaine said. "They all like Webbie."
Fact is, they all like LaFontaine, too. Forward Justin Bailey, in fact, moved from Buffalo and is staying with the coach's family, attending St. Anthony's High School, so he could be a Royal. "Living with Pat, a Hall of Famer, it's a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Bailey, whose father, Carlton, played linebacker for the Bills and once returned an interception for the touchdown that won the AFC championship.
Bailey has been drafted by the Indiana Ice of the U.S. Hockey League and the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. Like the rest of the Royals, he wants to reach the big time and believes in LaFontaine's ability to help him get there.
"My dad's a good coach," Daniel said, mindful that his father was leery about taking the job unless his son OK'd it. "I think this team is like a family."
It is becoming a well-known family. "I really think that having the cameras around makes everyone work harder," said Nicholas Hutchison, a forward from Hicksville.
The coach wants them to work hard at being good players and citizens, as he was. He knows when to be patient, such as when they returned from a road trip and the guys all had lots of homework. Then again, he had them do some extra work on the ice the night there were a few stragglers. "They paid for it," LaFontaine said with a laugh. "They'll be on time tomorrow."