Cutting a Star Out of the Picture
After a Spat, the Islanders Erase Pat LaFontaine From Their History
"Before every home game this season, the New York Islanders have commemorated their 40th anniversary in the National Hockey League by dimming the house lights and queuing up a nostalgic video.
For five minutes, the Nassau Coliseum scoreboard comes to life. It flickers through a montage of clips, set to stirring orchestral music, that recall the one thing this struggling franchise still has in abundance: a rich history of great moments made possible by great hockey players.
But anyone remotely familiar with the team's history will ask the same question after watching this video: What happened to one of the most famous Islanders of all, Pat LaFontaine?
LaFontaine, arguably the Islanders' best and most popular player in the late 1980s and early 1990s, remains one of their most significant figures. Yet the video is one of several instances when the Islanders seem intent to pretend he doesn't existâ€”they've left him out of their Hall of Fame and once neglected to mention his presence at a charity bike ride. It's one of the rare instances in sports history where a professional team has taken pains to whitewash a player from its history.
The fracture seems to stem from LaFontaine's 40-day tenure as an unpaid senior adviser to team owner Charles Wang and his resignation from that post on July 18, 2006. That resignation came just hours after Wang had fired general manager Neil Smith and replaced him with the team's backup goaltender, Garth Snow. Wang had hired Smith and LaFontaine on the same day, and LaFontaine said in a recent interview that he disagreed with Wang's decision to fire Smith after less than six weeks.
LaFontaine elected to step down after failing to persuade Wang to reconsider, he said â€” not necessarily out of loyalty to Smith, but out of concern for the franchise's direction. "I believe you treat people fairly," he said, "and stand up for what you believe in."
Through a team spokesman, Wang declined to comment on the situation. "Pat LaFontaine had a great NHL career and does a lot for the Long Island community," Wang said in a statement. "We wish him all the best." Snow declined to comment through a spokesman.
Former Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, who was a member of the team's board of governors when LaFontaine resigned, said he would understand if Wang still held a grudge against LaFontaine.
"Pat ran for the hills. Pat ran for cover," said Milbury, now an NHL analyst for NBC. "It was cowardly, and it was terrible. And if Charles was [ticked], I wouldn't blame him in the least." LaFontaine declined to respond to Milbury's comments.
As the Islanders' primary star following their dynastic period of the early 1980sâ€”the team won the Stanley Cup each year from 1980 to 1983â€”LaFontaine, now 47, is to the Islanders what Don Mattingly was to the Yankees: a fan favorite from a letdown of an era. LaFontaine arrived on Long Island in the 1983-84 season, just as the party was ending; the Islanders haven't won the Cup since. But he played eight seasons for them and ranks among the Islanders' all-time leaders in goals (fifth with 287) and points (sixth with 566).
Come 1:58 a.m. on April 19, exactly a quarter century will have passed since LaFontaine scored one of the most famous goals in NHL history: the game-winner in the "Easter Epic," the Islanders' 3-2, four-overtime victory over the Washington Capitals in the decisive Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals. But that goal isn't included in the Islanders' pregame video, either.
The contentiousness between the team and its ex-star reached its peak on Feb. 5, 2008, during a game at the Coliseum between the Islanders and the Anaheim Ducks. Brian Burke, who was Anaheim's general manager at the time, invited LaFontaine to the game to discuss Burke's potential support of LaFontaine's nonprofit organization, Champions in Courage, which funds the construction of interactive playrooms in children's hospitals.
After the Islanders denied LaFontaine a credential for the game, Burke instead provided a ticket for LaFontaine, and the two continued their meeting in a suite reserved for the Ducks' owners. A former team executive confirmed that LaFontaine was denied a credential to the game.
As the third period began, LaFontaine thanked Burke and left. It was the last time he has set foot in the arena. "You take the high road," he said. "And here we are."
Since that game, LaFontaine has become a ghost in the Coliseum, his likeness appearing in ephemeral glimpses. The letters "FONTAINE" might be visible on the back of a jersey in a random highlight. His photo is mounted among many photos on a wall leading to the press box.
To coincide with its 40th-anniversary celebration, the franchise created and distributed to its season-ticket holders 42 keepsake tickets. Each featured a notable Islanders player, coach or executive. None featured LaFontaine.
In September, he and former Islander Steve Webb biked 550 miles over 48 hours, from Toronto to New York, to raise money for charity. The Islanders issued a news release on their website about the event. The release mentioned Webb, but not LaFontaine. The Islanders confirmed these events happened but didn't comment.
The franchise has not retired his jersey; forward Marty Reasoner wears No. 16. And though LaFontaine was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, the Islanders have yet to induct him into their Hall of Fame.
Richard Vollmer, who has been an Islanders season-ticket holder throughout the team's existence said he has noticed the dearth of LaFontaine acknowledgments around the Coliseum. "As a season-ticket holder, I think it's a travesty," he said.
The irony of the organization's frayed ties with LaFontaine is that, since retiring in 1998 after sustaining a series of concussions, he has remained a fixture on Long Island. He and his family live there. The midget hockey team he coaches, the Long Island Royals, won a state championship last month.
One could argue that the Islanders could use the public-relations boost that would accompany their reconciling with a popular former player who has strong local roots. This will be the fifth straight season that they finish last in their division. They rank 29th among the league's 30 teams in average home attendance this season, and speculation persists about whether the franchise will move as the 2015 expiration of its Coliseum lease nears.
Since the Easter Epic, the Islanders have won just two playoff series in 25 years. "There's nothing more I would have loved to see," LaFontaine said, "than the Islanders coming back to prominence."
After his resignation, he said, LaFontaine called Wang twice in 2006, once in Thanksgiving and once at Christmas, inviting him to meet for coffee and make up. According to LaFontaine, Wang never called back."
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