Even before he reached kindergarten, Pat LaFontaine loved skating for its uncontrollable speed - the kind that blew off his knit cap and made adrenaline rush through his little head.
He was 3 or 4 and growing up near St. Louis when he first experienced the easiness of the ice.
His father would take Pat and his brother, John, to an outdoor rink near their house. The boys would grab dad’s hand and simply hang on, begging him to go faster and faster.
“One of the greatest feelings was the speed and the wind and the freedom,” LaFontaine said. “I thought, ‘I want to learn to skate this fast.’ I fell in love with the skating and the game.”
Hockey became his life and made him a multimillionaire. He played in the Olympics and the Stanley Cup before his 21st birthday. So long as he had his legs, LaFontaine figured he had control of his career.
Reconstructive surgery to his right knee and 16 months without hockey showed him just how quickly things can change.
Once considered among the best players in the world, the Buffalo Sabres forward now must prove himself once again. The Sabres, who signed the star center to a five-year, $22.4 million contract before this season, obviously believe he’ll make a successful return.
In the last several months, LaFontaine has spent many mornings skating alone on the rough ice at Sabreland - a small, dingy building used for high school games and beer leagues when Buffalo isn’t practicing.
There have been quiet times of discouragement and joyful periods of progress. Like a child with the rink to himself, he has imagined himself bursting past every defensemen and beating every goalie.
“For me, it’s in your heart,” LaFontaine said. “You love to play, and you want to be out there playing. That’s when you have to realize that you have limitations and you can’t mess around with Mother Nature.”
On Monday, 474 days since he last played in a regular-season game, LaFontaine is scheduled to rejoin the Sabres for practice. He then will find out when he can play in games. He has come back before only to have the knee stiffen and swell.
Even though he still hangs his coat in the team locker room and is a regular at home games, LaFontaine really hasn’t been a member of the team for more than a year.
He scored five goals and had 13 assists in 16 games last year. He hasn’t scored since Nov. 10, 1993, against Philadelphia. His last assist came three days before that.
“You realize how much you do love the game, and you recommit yourself,” LaFontaine said. “It teaches you patience. At a young age, you thought you were invincible, and you realize you’re not - you’re human.
“The psychological part - being away from the camaraderie - is just as hard. I’m in the (locker) room with the guys, and it’s like you haven’t left. Then you go back on the ice alone. It can really be frustrating at times.”
Buffalo has turned to Alexander Mogilny and Dale Hawerchuk to lead an offense that has struggled this season. Through its first 17 games, the Sabres had scored just 36 goals, third-worst in the league.
The Sabres will have to become reaccustomed to having LaFontaine back in the lineup. He is certain to give Buffalo at least one other powerful line on offense and a much-needed leader in the dressing room.
“He’ll step right in,” Hawerchuk said. “It’s not like he never played the game before, so there won’t be much of an adjustment. It’s just a question of getting his confidence and his timing back. He’s going to immediately help us.”
LaFontaine especially clicked with Mogilny, who scored 76 goals in 77 games two seasons ago. Last year, with LaFontaine missing most of the season, Mogilny had 32 goals in 66 games.
Mogilny had six goals in his first 17 games and didn’t have two goals in one game until he scored twice last Saturday against Hartford.
“It’s going to be nice to have him back,” Mogilny said. “He’s going to bring some new blood in the system. Right now, we need that.”
Coach and general manager John Muckler has tried to solve offensive problems by acquiring Craig Simpson from Edmonton last season and defenseman Alexei Zhitnik from Los Angeles this year in a six-player trade that sent goalie Grant Fuhr to L.A..
Recent injuries to Simpson, Zhitnik and Hawerchuk have placed even more emphasis on LaFontaine’s absence, especially because Buffalo thought it would have him back in October - and definitely by the time the labor dispute ended and the season actually started in January.
“The team has invested a lot of money in him, and I guess sooner or later the guys are going to start looking for some help,” Hawerchuk said. “At the same time, he has an injury and he just can’t play. We’ve just had to wait it out and hope when he does get back, he’s 100 percent.”
According to his doctors and therapists, LaFontaine’s knee should be at full strength for the first time in nearly two years.
“When they say I’m ready to go,” LaFontaine said, “I’ll have the biggest smile I’ve had in a long time.”
Muckler is hoping to have everyone back before the playoffs.
“It’s kind of exciting to feel that (LaFontaine) and Alex (Mogilny) are going to take off like they did last year,” Muckler said.
Besides the new outlook, rebuilt knee and big contract, much has changed for LaFontaine in the last 16 months. He turned 30 on Feb. 22, got on a health-food kick and improved his upper-body strength.
Marybeth, for a third time after an injury to her husband, is pregnant.
The couple joked of calling their first child “Chip” because she was conceived while LaFontaine was out with a chipped bone. They thought of calling their second child “Jaws” because she was conceived while he was out during the 1991-92 season with a broken jaw. They’re thinking of calling their third child “Tierney” after his last injury.
For his 30th birthday, LaFontaine received a card that had a picture on the front of a toothless man. Inside it read, “Once you reach 30, the first thing that goes are your legs.”
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