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Pat LaFontaine on the Islanders, Brooklyn, his career and the ‘Miracle on Ice’

Former New York Islander and Hockey Hall

Former New York Islander and Hockey Hall of Fame member Pat LaFontaine waves to the crowd before a game between the Islanders and the Minnesota Wild at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Pat LaFontaine was in Brooklyn on Wednesday, talking hockey and signing autographs, barely a mile from Barclays Center. But the former Islanders star has yet to attend a game there, more than halfway into the team’s first season in Brooklyn.

“It’s just the timing,” he said after an appearance at the Brooklyn Historical Society tied to the Islanders’ move to Brooklyn and an ongoing exhibit on the NHL’s Brooklyn Americans of 1941-42.

“It’s kind of hard for me to go there,” LaFontaine said. “I shouldn’t say that, because I work for the league. But I will get there eventually.”

LaFontaine, 50, who lives in Manhattan and Cold Spring Harbor, partly meant it is difficult because of a busy schedule, including a job as the NHL’s vice president of development and community affairs. But it also is complicated emotionally.

So touched was LaFontaine by the Islanders’ night honoring him at Nassau Coliseum last March 24 that he declined to attend a playoff game there last spring, preferring to remember everything as it was that night.

“So far, I’m still there,” he said of his connection to that night. “But I’m following them. I’m wishing them well. I love Brooklyn. I would love to see a game, but it’s been a crazy, busy first half of the season.”

LaFontaine, who also played for the Sabres and Rangers in completing a New York trifecta in his Hall of Fame career, said he mostly is just happy the Islanders remained in the area.

“They’re here in New York and they’re still playing,” he said. “Brooklyn has embraced them, and Brooklyn is a great place. I’ve heard some talk about the rink configuration, but the bottom line is, right now, under the circumstances, they are in New York.

“It’s a great area. It’s not far from Long Island. I started as an Islander and so I still have that memory. But I think it’s a process. It’s great to see them playing. I watch them, and they have a good, really young team, an evolving team that has really taken the next step. I watch the Sabres. I watch the Rangers. I’m kind of in a New York state of mind.”

Other comments from LaFontaine, both from the formal Q&A and an interview afterward:

On the impact of the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, on his 15th birthday in 1980:

“We were eating Little Caesars pizza. Ham and mushroom was my favorite. The feeling when [Mike Eruzione] scored that goal, it changed everything.” (LaFontaine is among the most accomplished American-born players in history.)

On watching the Islanders win their first Stanley Cup on May 24, 1980:

“I remember going downstairs. We stood up for the overtime. I still see it in my mind: Henning passes it to Tonelli, he opens up and slides it to Bobby Nystrom. Here we are in Michigan, jumping up and down and [my father] said, ‘Do you even know where Long Island is?’ I said, ‘No, it’s in New York somewhere.’

“The irony of that story is a little less than four years later, March 1, a 19-year-old kid who looks like he’s 12, a wide-eyed Midwesterner, is centering John Tonelli and Bobby Nystrom in his first [NHL] game. Who would have thought?”

On scoring the game-winner in a quadruple-overtime playoff game against the Capitals on April 19, 1987:

“To this day I run into people who hate me still in Maryland. [Capitals coach]) Barry Trotz did an article this year and he said, ‘[expletive] LaFontaine!’ It’s 30 years ago!”

On the aftermath of the concussion he suffered in a playoff game against the Rangers at the Garden on April 5, 1990:

“I’ll never forget being wheeled off on a stretcher and fans yelling, ‘LaFontaine, I hope your neck’s broken! I hope you die!’ . . . The stretcher wasn’t bad enough, so let’s shake the ambulance. They were trying to tip over the ambulance. There were probably 50 people. I was on the headboard and I was laying down and the doors opened up and the attendant was screaming and yelling and it was shaking. But somehow we were finally able to get to Lenox Hill [Hospital].”

LaFontaine became a Ranger seven years later.

“This is not a lie. The first game I’m playing as a New York Ranger is against the New York Islanders and there’s two minutes to go and I think Brian Leetch took a shot and I tipped it in and I tied the game and I swore I heard someone yell, ‘I’m so glad you’re not dead!’ ”

On returning from a severe concussion in Buffalo in 1996 to play for the Rangers in 1997-98:

“I went to the Rangers and I have to tell you, I never appreciated the game so much. I appreciated every practice, my teammates, every game. The Rangers treated me first-class and to this day still treat me first-class. I guess the silver lining is when something is taken from you and you go through that dark tunnel and you want everything to be OK, and then your brain reconnects and now your passion comes back and you can actually play.

“I think it allowed me to kind of have closure. I know my personality, and if that hit in Buffalo would have defined me and I would have had to retire and would not have been able to come back, I think that would have haunted me. I think it would have bothered me for a long time.”

On the Islanders’ final season at Nassau Coliseum:

“I thought it was only fitting that the team played so well and brought back the memories, had 30 sellouts. But it goes back to Al Arbour, Bill Torrey, Eddie Westfall, all the great players who were like a family and who got involved in the community and the community supported them and it became this really special family and arguably the greatest five years of a sports team in the history of sports.

“There were a lot of years where you kind of lost that, so to see that excitement come back brought back memories.”

On whether he suffers any ill effects of his concussions now that he is 50:

“No, I’ve been lucky. I got great advice, and outside of the one concussion in Buffalo, the key is diagnosis and prevention and obviously letting it heal properly. I was lucky. I always say this: My brain found its way back, reconnected. I feel blessed in that.”

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