Concussions finally got the best of Pat LaFontaine, forcing one of the best U.S.-born hockey players ever to retire Tuesday.
"Every time you sustain a head injury, the risk gets higher and higher," LaFontaine said a news conference. "I always said that if there ever was a point where the risk was more than minimal, I would stop playing."
That point came on March 16, when the 33-year-old center sustained his sixth concussion after being hit by teammate Mike Keane, ending his only season with the New York Rangers. Neurologist Jim Kelly told LaFontaine a few weeks ago that he was at risk for more concussions and suggested he retire.
"I think it would have been a very difficult decision if I had to make it on my own," LaFontaine said. "I feel fortunate that Dr. Kelly made the decision for me. I'm thankful he decided I could play last year and I wouldn't question his decision this year."
After his latest concussion, LaFontaine went through a long period of migraine headaches, fatigue, depression and sleepless nights. Another concussion could have led to more serious symptoms and a longer recovery period.
"I applaud Pat LaFontaine's courage and wisdom for recognizing that his brain is more important to his life than another MVP award or record," Dr. Kelly said in a statement. "As we see with Pat, a concussion can end a career. It can destroy dreams and aspirations."
LaFontaine's career was almost ended a year earlier, after being severely injured when he was checked by Pittsburgh's Francois Leroux. LaFontaine played only 13 games in the 1996-97 season and was urged to retire then by the Buffalo Sabres. He resisted and was traded to the Rangers, collecting 23 goals and 39 assists in 67 games and finishing as the team's second-highest scorer.
"It got to the point where it wouldn't take as hard a hit for me to be worse off than before," LaFontaine said. "Dr. Kelly said last year that this is what would happen. I'm thankful I had the opportunity to come back and play last year."
LaFontaine played 15 seasons in the NHL with the New York Islanders, the Sabres and the Rangers, finishing with 468 goals, 545 assists and 1,013 points. He also played on the 1984 and 1998 U.S. Olympic teams and the 1996 gold medal World Cup team.
"Some of my proudest moments came representing my country," he said. "A big part of coming back to play last year was the opportunity to play in the Olympics again."
LaFontaine finished his career second only to Joey Mullen in goals by U.S.-born players. Mullen had 502 goals.
"We were very lucky to have Pat wear the Rangers uniform for one year," general manager Neil Smith said. "He is almost second to none in American hockey history."
LaFontaine said he would spend his first season away from hockey with his wife and three kids and educating players about the risks of concussions.
"I was lucky that I was able to play 15 years," he said. "Some players, like Brett Lindros, have to make this decision earlier in their careers. I hope we can make it so players don't have to make this decision."
In the final year of a $21 million, five-year contract, LaFontaine will receive the $4.8 million due him this season. The Rangers will pay about $1.7 million of that, with insurance picking up the rest.
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