By Peter Schwartz
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After representing the United States in the 1984 Winter Olympics, Pat LaFontaine jumped straight to the NHL and joined the Islanders in the midst of their quest for a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. It didn't take him long to realize that the Nassau Coliseum was an amazing place to play.
He also came to understand that things went up a notch when the playoffs came around.
"It was exciting during the regular season but the players all said to me, wait till the playoffs," said LaFontaine, who tallied 287 goals and 566 points in 530 games as an Islander. "Sure enough, in the first game against the Rangers with the sparklers and the excitement you could almost feel the building shaking."
For the record, LaFontaine tallied a goal and an assist in the Islanders' 4-1 win over the Rangers in Game 1 of the 1984 Patrick Division semifinals. LaFontaine and the Islanders would reach the Stanley Cup Final later that spring, but lost to the Edmonton Oilers in five games.
While that victory over the Rangers would turn out to be his favorite Coliseum moment, many if not all Islanders fans will always remember LaFontaine for his game winning goal in the "Easter Epic" against the Capitals in the opening round of the 1987 playoffs.
As the seasons went on, the Nassau Coliseum and Long Island became home for LaFontaine, who will be honored with a night at the old barn on Tuesday, March 24, when the Islanders host the Minnesota Wild.
"Pat is clearly a fan favorite and an important player in the team's history," said Eileen Mathews, the Islanders' senior marketing manager. "We're very excited to welcome him back and have the fans give him one final Coliseum salute."
For LaFontaine, being back in the building will bring back some wonderful memories.
"I met my wife on Long Island," said LaFontaine, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. "My daughter was born in Huntington. We live on Long Island now so I hold Long Island near and dear and my time early in my career at the Coliseum as an Islander was real special for me."
While there are many people around the league who look at the Nassau Coliseum as a dump, Islanders fans will be quick to point out that "it's our dump," and it just might be the loudest building in the league when the Islanders are playing well and the barn is full, especially in the playoffs.
LaFontaine experienced that first hand.
"It was electric," said the Islanders' first round pick in 1983. "The building was so loud and there was such excitement, you could always feel the building shake. It's got great sight lines. There was always talk that they wish the concourse could be bigger, so there's a part of you that wishes that the building could grow with the times and the team could continue to stay there. It was a great place to play and I really loved to play there."
Today, LaFontaine works for the National Hockey League as Vice-President for Hockey Development and Community Affairs. He helps out the league in a number of different areas, including player safety, development at different levels of hockey, and in the league's community foundation initiatives.
"It's a way to have an impact on our game," said LaFontaine. "It's been a great experience for me and I've really enjoyed it."
LaFontaine also remains busy with "Companions in Courage," his own charitable organization that connects hospitalized children with their family, friends, and heroes through the building of interactive playrooms in hospitals.
For more information, please visit the organization's website.
Working at the league office in New York City and residing on Long Island has kept LaFontaine in touch with what has been happening with the Islanders, including their impending move to Brooklyn for the start of the 2015-16 season.
Since the Coliseum holds a special place in LaFontaine's heart, the team's departure is a tough pill for him to swallow.
"I felt really bad," said LaFontaine, referring to the team's decision to bolt for Brooklyn. "I'm happy that the Islanders (will be) close by, but obviously sad and sad for the fans that have gone to that hockey destination for (43) years and have had so many great memories."
Over the years, many Islanders fans have been begging the organization to honor LaFontaine. Whether it was retiring his number 16 or simply inducting him into the team's hall of fame, the fans believe that LaFontaine's seven-and-a-half-year run with the Islanders deserves to be acknowledged.
However, LaFontaine had two messy divorces from the franchise.
During the 1990-91 season, LaFontaine and owner John Pickett didn't exactly see eye to eye on things. LaFontaine wanted a new contract and Pickett was trying to sell the team. Mistrust in ownership became an issue and LaFontaine asked to be traded.
He finished the season with the Islanders and then threatened to sit out the entire 1991-92 season unless Pickett sold the team. Finally, on Oct. 25, 1991, LaFontaine was traded to the Buffalo Sabres.
LaFontaine played six seasons for the Sabres before finishing his career as a Ranger in 1998. He missed the entire 1998-99 season because of a concussion and then formally retired in October of 1999.
Then, in 2006, LaFontaine re-joined the Islanders organization as an unpaid consultant on the same day that Neil Smith was named the team's new general manager. Less than six weeks later, owner Charles Wang wanted to fire Smith because the former Rangers boss wasn't on board with the Islanders' organizational structure. LaFontaine unsuccessfully tried to convince Wang to keep Smith and decided to leave the franchise again.
"At the end of the day, it was probably a misunderstanding," said LaFontaine who went to breakfast with Wang last year. "Charles had reached out to me. Everything was fine and we had a great meeting."
Then, before this season general manager Garth Snow reached out to LaFontaine to let him know that the team wanted to give him a night.
"I think it's a tremendous honor," said LaFontaine. "It's where my career started. I thought it was a really nice gesture on behalf of Charles and Garth. To have a night there, I'm very excited and I'm looking forward to it."
After he's honored, LaFontaine will get an up-close look at the current Islanders team that has been honoring the Coliseum's final year with what has been a special season so far.
"I think they've got a tremendous team," said LaFontaine. "They're an exciting team to watch. It's nice for the fans to kind of re-live the great memories of what's transpired at the Coliseum. To see it happen this year has been really special for me to watch."
Exactly how the Islanders will honor LaFontaine on March 24 has not been announced, but one thing is for sure: the fans are going to let him know how much he meant to the franchise.
MORE SPECIAL NIGHTS AT THE OLD BARN
Aside from Pat LaFontaine night, the Islanders have some additional promotions planned during the second half of the season to celebrate the final season at the Nassau Coliseum.
The team has scheduled two more mini-locker nights.
Bryan Trottier will be honored on Friday Jan. 16, when the Islanders take on Pittsburgh and Mike Bossy gets his night on Thursday, Jan. 29, when the Boston Bruins come to the Coliseum.
All four mini-locker games during the first half of the season were sellouts and the Islanders expect full houses for the final two.
"We do," Mathews said. "The most popular questions we were asked when folks were picking up the first-half mini lockers were, 'When is Bryan Trottier mini-locker night?' and 'When is Mike Bossy mini-locker night?' We're looking forward to having Bryan back again. And, of course, Mike Bossy is, well, Mike Bossy."
The Islanders will also have three bobblehead nights during the second half of the season.
Kyle Okposo bobblehead night will be Saturday, Feb. 14 against Columbus, while Matt Martin's will be given out on Saturday, Feb. 28 against Carolina. John Tavares bobblehead night will be on Sunday, March 29 against Detroit.
Just like with the mini-locker nights, fans must purchase a "Tradition on Ice" ticket to get a bobblehead.
The Islanders said that system has worked very well.
"We tried to make the actual locker pickup as easy as possible," said Mathews. "All in all, I think people were pretty happy with the process."
Two more special nights are also on the schedule.
On Feb. 3, prior to their game with Florida, the Islanders will wear warm-up jerseys featuring the infamous "fisherman" logo. Then, for the final regular season game ever at the Coliseum, April 11 against Columbus, the Islanders will wear jerseys from their inaugural 1972 season. The jerseys will have no names and orange numbers.
Fans will have the opportunity to bid on both sets of jerseys in advance of each game, with the proceeds going to the Islanders Children's Foundation.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow the Islanders @NYIslanders and Pat Lafontaine's "Companions in Courage" foundation @CiC16foundation
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