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This LaFontaine love story isn't about hockey

Brianna LaFontaine, daughter of Hockey Hall of Famer

Brianna LaFontaine, daughter of Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, and Randel McCoy, her husband and an assistant wrestling coach at Cold Spring Harbor High School, in a scene from ESPN's E:60 segment, "A Love Story" which documents McCoy's battle with ALS. Credit: ESPN

Jeremy Schaap was the first at ESPN to hear the story, sharing it with his colleagues after he could not quite shake it from his mind. Then John Minton III got involved, did more research and experienced the same thing.

"I just couldn’t kick it, to be honest," said Minton, an ESPN producer. "It was something that stuck in my brain."

The result is "A Love Story," a long-form segment that premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday on the magazine show "E:60" on ESPN2 and ESPN+, in advance of the Islanders’ game against Chicago at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

The story focuses on the relationship between Randel McCoy, an assistant wrestling coach at Cold Spring Harbor High School who grew up in Huntington Station, and Brianna LaFontaine, who grew up in Cold Spring Harbor.

It has many layers, including the couple’s different backgrounds.

McCoy grew up amid modest means and lost his mother, a hairdresser who was raising him and his brother alone, to AIDS in 1994, when Randel was 8. Brianna grew up financially comfortable.

He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2018, six months into their relationship, but they stayed together and have faced the fatal disease as husband and wife.

And then there is this wrinkle, which is how the story ended up as a lead-in to an Islanders game: Brianna’s father is Pat LaFontaine, a former Islander, Sabre and Ranger and Hockey Hall of Famer.

Minton knew all about LaFontaine the hockey player before he spoke to him, in part because Minton grew up an Islanders fan in Commack. (He now lives in North Carolina and attended the Islanders’ opener against the Hurricanes in Raleigh last week.)

But LaFontaine’s hockey history is incidental to this story, and Pat’s role in it.

"He was far more a concerned father and father-in-law in the context I’ve spent time with him over the last year or two than he ever was one of the most decorated American-born hockey players in history," Minton said.

"The conversations we were having were primarily focused around family, the future and being part of a family with Randel and his family."

Minton said he could see in how LaFontaine has handled this situation the leadership skills and empathy he employed in his playing days.

"What he is dealing with and what his family is dealing with, the fact that he was a successful hockey player, that doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t have real-life problems like any other family in the world," Minton said.

While LaFontaine is the star in the show, he is not the star of the show. McCoy and Brianna can and do speak for themselves, describing a whirlwind romance that encountered a cold slap in the face after a mere half-year together.

Schaap first heard McCoy speak by chance on Nov. 7, 2019, at the ALS Association Greater New York Chapter Lou Gehrig Sports Awards benefit.

Soon Minton was driving from Connecticut, where he then lived, to Long Island to meet McCoy.

What he found was a compelling personality and speaker, something that was true of everyone from both sides of the family. "It felt like every person you sat down with was just being really vulnerable and honest," Minton said.

The primary interviews with Randel and Brianna were conducted in January of 2020. There is a brief scene of the two in June of 2021 that gives viewers a hint of McCoy’s further physical deterioration since then.

"ALS is an insidious disease, and it’s one that operates on a schedule that is incredibly aggressive," Minton said.

Despite the physical and emotional toll of the disease, McCoy’s spirit comes through repeatedly.

He was a multi-sport star at Huntington High School. He scored on a 62-yard run in the 2002 PAL All-Star Game and was named team MVP. He also was a wrestler, and in recent years assisted at Cold Spring Harbor.

One sport he knew nothing about until recently was hockey. When he first met Brianna, he figured she had some sort of French ancestry but never had heard of a person named Pat LaFontaine.

Now he has, but as a supportive father-in-law first and foremost.

"At this point in time in his life," Minton said, "I think he’s just doing everything he can to help his daughter, his son-in-law and his family be the best versions of themselves, just like he would with leading the Islanders, the Sabres or the Rangers."

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