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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Pat LaFontaine scores as an Islander and prominent local icon

Hall of Fame member Pat Lafontaine is honored

Hall of Fame member Pat Lafontaine is honored before a game between the New York Islanders and the Minnesota Wild at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 24, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

Pat LaFontaine's first memory of Nassau Coliseum came through TV on May 24, 1980. His father let him take a break from Saturday afternoon yardwork to watch overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

"We watched Lorne Henning pass to John Tonelli and John Tonelli pass to Bobby Nystrom. We were jumping up and down in Michigan," he said Tuesday. "Fast forward four years and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be centering John Tonelli and Bobby Nystrom in my first game."

Nor could he have envisioned that Henning, then an assistant coach, would introduce him to a girl-next-door type. "She really lives next door," the former center recalls Henning saying, also reflecting on how he and Marybeth were married at St. Patrick's Church in Huntington, which also was Al Arbour's parish.

LaFontaine also never pictured himself settling on the North Shore, raising three children here, becoming a prominent Long Islander and, finally, Tuesday night, being honored by the franchise that began his Hall of Fame career 31 years ago.

"Long Island is near and dear to me. This is our home," he said. "This is where it started, so this is special."

"This" was a ceremony before the Islanders' game against the Wild. This was another in a series of tributes that brought back Islanders icons in the final season at the Coliseum. This was different, though. LaFontaine was not part of the Cup teams -- he arrived in time for the team's fifth trip to the Final, which fell short against the Oilers.

And this was more than a reunion, it was a reconciliation. It put behind the rough edges of LaFontaine's two difficult departures from the team. He left as a superstar player in 1991 after a contract dispute and left again in 2006 as an executive adviser after he felt owner Charles Wang really did not want his advice.

"Charles reached out to me the September before [last]. We had a great talk," the 50-year-old said. "This year Garth [Snow] reached out too and said, 'We'd love to have you back, we want to do the right thing by the building and the players and really celebrate this year.' I said it's a tremendous gesture. I'd be honored to."

So the Islanders tied up a conspicuous loose end before the move to Brooklyn. LaFontaine got one more chance to savor a standing ovation from his Long Island neighbors. "He was one of the great Islanders. He was a tremendous goal scorer, he did some great things here," said John Tavares, whom LaFontaine praised as "the perfect captain, the perfect leader for the future."

One more time, LaFontaine got to wear his No. 16 Islanders jersey. He got to reminisce about the privilege of playing for Arbour, whom he visited in a Florida nursing home recently. LaFontaine called the coach "the Vince Lombardi of hockey."

Accompanied to his news conference by his 19-year-old son Daniel, he smiled about having been 19 and joining the dynasty that Bill Torrey put together. "I don't think there's a five-year period of time where you see a greater team in sports. To win 19 playoff series in a row over the course of five years is unprecedented," he said.

Those Islanders of the 1980s taught him how to live in and for the community. True to form, for his ceremonial puck drop, he insisted on being accompanied by Clinton Brown, whose many childhood surgeries in the 1980s inspired LaFontaine to organize his Companions in Courage Foundation.

These days, LaFontaine is a vice president of the NHL. But Tuesday night, he was simply a Long Islander and, finally again, an Islander.


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