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THURSDAY SPECIAL / General Electric / Laviolette vows to put charge into Islanders

AT THE VERY least, Peter Laviolette should bring electricity to the

Islanders. He has a history.

It started at his wedding five years ago in Norfolk, Mass., about five

minutes from where Laviolette grew up in Franklin. Everything seemed perfect

for the 250 guests: blue sky, 95 degrees, big tent in the back yard ... "A

little rain would be nice about now," Laviolette was heard saying later on the

wedding videotape.

People say Laviolette always gets his way. Just as the best man gave his

toast, a torrential downpour doused the celebration. The tent flooded, leaving

guests sitting on metal chairs, their feet immersed in rainwater, when

lightning struck a well on the property.

Twenty-six people were hit. One man felt a shock come through his fork and

up his arm. "They're carrying my friends, laying them on my mother's dining

room floor," said the bride, Kristen Laviolette.

No one was seriously injured, though 20 were taken to the hospital and one

stayed overnight for observation. Many who had been struck returned to the

reception and danced - still wearing their hospital bracelets.

The next Fourth of July, guests at a holiday picnic wore "I survived Peter

and Kristen's wedding" T-shirts imprinted with a thundercloud and lightning

bolt - and again, a tempest interrupted the party.

Several weeks ago, an electrical storm knocked the phone lines off the

Laviolettes' house in Franklin, and the day Laviolette signed on as Islanders

coach, the family flew through a wicked thunderstorm to get to MacArthur

Airport.

Can lightning strike ice? If Laviolette - the Islanders' sixth coach in

seven years-is to succeed, he'll need more power than LIPA.

The first clue that he's got the juice to do it are those eyes.

You notice them when Laviolette's mother, Helen, pulls out a Norwegian

magazine from the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer. Peter, captain of the U.S.

hockey team, stares out from the cover as if he might jump out and crosscheck

the reader in the nose.

"The intensity he has there," she said, "is what it is all about."

It's a fierceness, a determination that got him chosen to two U.S. Olympic

teams and enabled Laviolette to carve out an 11-year professional hockey career

despite marginal talent. He never played Division I in college, never was

drafted, yet somehow was voted captain of nearly every team he played on.

"He won't let anything stop him from winning," Laviolette's high school

coach, Bob Luccini, said.

He carried that same moxie over into his second career: coaching. In

Providence, he once was so angry about the way his best players were

performing, he sat his five stars for the entire second period of a game.

"Guys weren't always happy with him, but in the end, they realized what his

objective was," said Jeremy Brown, who played for both of Laviolette's

minor-league teams, Wheeling, W.Va., and Providence.

Which is a big reason Mike Milbury shocked many Islanders fans by hiring

him last month. Laviolette's Lazarus act has worked well in the minor leagues.

But can he do it here? Laviolette, 36, thinks - knows - he can.

As Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, coaching is about salesmanship.

"And I can sell," Laviolette said, breaking into a grin.

The new coach of the Islanders is friendly, polite and ruggedly handsome.

He's the little brother who played Barbies with his sisters, Leslie and Lauren,

until he was old enough to spend hours skating on the man- made pond behind

the convenience store owned by his dad, Peter Sr. He's the teenager who

pestered for a bike, then a car, then a spring break trip, until even his

iron-willed mother gave in, as long as he earned enough to pay for them himself.

He's the savvy college student who one day walked into a Honda dealership

with no money and no job and drove away with a deal on a brand-new Civic on

charm alone.

When he wasn't helping his father install garage doors or stocking shelves

at Art's Grocery, the family business, Laviolette was a hard-nosed,

stay-at-home defenseman and sometime forward for Franklin High School, set in

the town of 18,000 just 35 miles southwest of Boston. Laviolette never figured

on a career in hockey because he couldn't get a scholarship. He attended

Division III Westfield State College, west of Springfield, a school where ice

time was allotted at 5 a.m. The Westfield Owls were so bad, they won only three

games in Laviolette's senior year before the program disbanded.

Still, he caught the eye of Minnesota North Stars scout Smokey Cerrone, who

combed Massachusetts to find NHL talent such as Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick,

Craig Janney and Brian Leetch.

Cerrone loved Laviolette's dive-in- front-of-the puck style and arranged a

tryout. The young defenseman showed up at North Stars camp with a broken thumb.

He had punched an opponent who ran his goalie during a no-check game earlier

in the summer.

"The thing that was so impressive was there was no way to decide if he

would make it, but you knew he'd give it everything he had," said San Jose

Sharks general manager Dean Lombardi, Laviolette's first agent.

Laviolette cobbled himself enough of a career to tour the minor leagues and

was called up for 12 games with the Rangers in 1988-89, but he couldn't stick

at the NHL level. At 32 and nearing the end of his playing career, he agreed to

become an assistant coach under Bob Francis with the Providence Bruins.

To coach, Laviolette didn't need the talent of a Ray Bourque. He knew the

game from years of playing and learned how to handle a team by watching every

move Francis made. The unquenchable desire to win still was as fresh as the day

of his worst defeat: Team USA's 6-1 loss to Finland in the 1994 Olympic

quarterfinals.

"It was tough for me to handle losing because of the magnitude of the

event," Laviolette said. "When it was over, I cried; I cried like a baby

because it hurt so bad we had failed."

Three years after the Olympics, he sent a resume to Wheeling, and was

hired, coaching the Nailers to the East Coast Hockey League semifinals. The

next season, he returned to Providence and orchestrated the biggest turnaround

in American Hockey League history, leading a Providence Bruins team that had

won 19 games the previous season under Tom McVie to a 56-16-4-4 record and the

Calder Cup. In 1999-2000, Laviolette coached the P-Bruins to the conference

finals, and last season, he was promoted to assist Pat Burns with the big club.

In three seasons of coaching in the minors, Laviolette was 126-78-19-7 in

the regular season and 33-15 in the playoffs.

Almost everyone following Laviolette's ascent in the Bruins organization

thought he was a shoo-in for the next NHL head-coaching position there. But the

Bruins passed over him twice - once for Mike Keenan after firing Burns, and

more recently for former Devils coach Robbie Ftorek. In both cases, Bruins

general manager Mike O'Connell decided to go with experience, the one quality

Laviolette lacks at the NHL level.

"A guy like Peter Laviolette could turn out like a guy like [St. Louis

Blues coach] Joel Quenneville or he could be in over his head," Bruins

president Harry Sinden said. "We couldn't take that chance."

Even Keenan aligned with the Bruins brass. The former Rangers coach said

that as much as he admired Laviolette's communication skills when they worked

together, he believes Milbury made a "really high-risk hire" taking on a rookie

coach in the NHL.

Not that it matters to Milbury. The Islanders GM passed on the more popular

choice of Ted Nolan for what he called "the whole enchilada" in Laviolette.

Milbury is on his fifth coach (including himself) in seven years and admits

this could be his last hire if the Islanders don't surface from the NHL's sandy

bottom. So why Laviolette?

Milbury said he was impressed by Laviolette's combination of hockey

knowledge and people skills.

"When I sat in a room with him, he had my attention and I had his," Milbury

said. "I think he has a presence about him."

The GM liked the way Laviolette dealt with people in the organization on

his visit to Long Island.

Those close to Laviolette say he will treat the hot dog vendor the same way

he does Charles Wang, with humanity and respect. They keep coming back to his

loyalty. "If George Bush were in a room talking with Peter and someone from

Franklin walked in the room, he'd leave the president and talk to them,"

Luccini said.

Former players warn not to be fooled by Laviolette's affable demeanor. If

you don't want to dive in front of pucks or stand up for a teammate, he'll sit

you in the stands. The idea he might be too agreeable for a directionless young

team such as the Islanders makes Laviolette bristle.

"Do my players say I'm soft?" he challenged. Then his tone softened. "You

know, I've got a lot of my mom in me. She's very intense. She says what's on

her mind. I also have my dad's side of me, which is more easygoing. Anybody can

like my dad; anybody. I have that trait in me, as well. I have my sister

Leslie's heart and my sister Lauren's sense of humor, so there's a good mix I

take from my family."

The family is Laviolette's rock. The Christmas he was away from home

playing with the IHL Indianapolis Checkers, they set up a speaker phone and

spent two hours opening presents with Peter on the other end of the line. When

Peter couldn't get away from the Checkers to attend Lauren's wedding, he sent a

videotaped toast that left everyone sobbing. At the '94 Olympics, after Team

USA finished a disappointing eighth of 12 teams and Laviolette was the last one

out of the locker room, his parents were there for him.

"One of the best things I ever saw was when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the

championship in 1979," Laviolette said. "It was a huge family team. It always

kind of stuck with me. When you think about it, if you have to go to war or

have to go to battle, you'd probably want your family there with you because

they'd fight the hardest. It's important you create that environment for the

team."

In Wheeling, the Nailers had no NHL affiliation and local business people

put up $1.6 million to keep the franchise in town. Laviolette had to recruit 20

players (only two returned from the previous year) and teach them how to win.

He encouraged the wives to watch the games together, and he once hosted a

Roast-the-Coach night so his players could take pot shots at him for charity.

On game nights, Laviolette wandered into Spike's Den, the bar attached to

Wheeling Coliseum, to mingle with boosters.

"He turned us into a family before we knew what happened," said Joe Harney,

a former player who now coaches the Nailers. They haven't had a winning season

since Laviolette left.

Laviolette said he has no idea how he creates a recipe for success.

"It's not like you take two eggs, crack them in a bowl, add the flour and

add the sugar and Voila! You have a cake mix," he said. "I just go in and do

it. I change the environment."

Several people who played for Laviolette said he appeals to his teams by

being honest and straightforward. He can yell at them one minute and send them

home the next to be with their families. Perhaps more importantly, the players

respect his hockey knowledge.

"If you look around the league, the better coaches aren't the yellers,

aren't the screamers," Boston Bruins center Jason Allison said. "You look at

Joel Quenneville in St. Louis, he hardly ever says anything. Larry Robinson, he

has another side to him, too, that the players know and respect and like. I

think as the game goes on, it's being more technical than motivation, that the

guys who are smart hockey men and can also communicate well are being

successful. I think he's in that category."

Laviolette's experience with Allison was as an assistant last season under

Burns and Keenan. His job was to break down tapes of opponents, formulate plans

for the power play and penalty-killing units, and solve problems when things

weren't working during a game. Allison said he could approach Laviolette with

an idea because the coach wanted to know what the players were thinking on the

ice.

Veteran defenseman Don Sweeney said he noticed Laviolette treading lightly

at first when Burns was about to get fired, but his role increased under

Keenan, and by the end of the season, Sweeney said, the assistant coach had a

solid grasp of how to prepare for an NHL game and deal with NHL players. He

became more vocal and confident.

"You could just tell the things he was comfortable doing in the previous

years in the AHL were starting to come forward," Sweeney said. "That bodes well

for him feeling comfortable from day one and getting off to the right start on

the Island; going through training camp and all that stuff, and them being his

players and his team."

That's what Milbury hopes will happen when camp opens in Lake Placid in

September. Although Laviolette will not be involved in personnel decisions or

this weekend's NHL draft - "He's paid to coach," Milbury said - the two have

spent long hours hashing over their hockey philosophies. Laviolette joined

Milbury in Florida on Tuesday to prepare for the draft.

When the GM first interviewed Laviolette after Ftorek was hired in Boston,

the two sat in a room at Nassau Coliseum in front of a hockey board and spent

three hours volleying opinions. It was Milbury's way of testing Laviolette's

approach to the game.

"I said, 'Well, how would you forecheck? How would you play in the neutral

zone? What about your D-zone coverage? How do we break this out? What do you do

with a puckhandling goaltender like [Rick] DiPietro? And what about special

teams?'" Milbury said. "We went at it for several hours."

The GM liked what the job applicant had to say.

"I want a high-tempo, fast-paced game that's filled with lots of hittin'

and, like I said, fightin' and bleedin' and sweatin' and giving the people a

reason to stand up and cheer," Laviolette said.

It's that attitude, along with the Advanced Hockey quiz, that sold Milbury.

Milbury had forgotten that in 1992, when he was the Bruins' assistant GM,

he was convinced by Laviolette to find room for the defenseman when the

27-year-old career minor-leaguer was looking to play close to home with the

Providence Bruins instead of signing with a team in Germany. Laviolette became

the P-Bruins' first captain in 1992-93. After the Olympics and a season in San

Diego, he played in Providence another three seasons (1994-97) before becoming

an assistant under Francis, now the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Had that chain of events not happened, maybe I wouldn't have been in

coaching at all today," Laviolette said.

Or maybe he would have ended up somewhere else. Those closest to Laviolette

are as convinced as he is that NHL coaching is his birthright. The folks back

in Franklin already are gearing up for the season. A Bruins fan for 40 years,

Luccini is switching allegiances and getting a satellite dish. Bruce Bertoni,

manager of Franklin's Veterans Memorial Rink, where Laviolette's No. 4 is

retired, said he will buy an Islanders hat. Even O'Connell, the man who passed

him over for the Boston job, wishes Laviolette success.

"Unless Peter turns out to be the next Al Arbour, we'll have another shot

at him," O'Connell said.

Meanwhile, members of the Laviolette family are planning convoys on the

Orient Point ferry, and Peter and Kristen are preparing to move into their

fifth house in six years.

The couple bought a new home in Huntington, where Peter will set up

pint-sized nets in the basement and play goalie for 3-year-old Peter III and

2-year-old Jack. The Bruins programs he used to read the boys at night before

bedtime have been replaced with photos of Islanders wearing blue, orange and

white.

That's Brad Is-bis-ter. (Or Alex-ei Ya-shin?)

He may be a rookie coach, but Laviolette has big plans. He wants to bring

the Stanley Cup back to Long Island.

"I didn't come here to say .500 is good," Laviolette said. "I expect to

win."

May lightning strike anyone who doesn't believe.

New York Sports