America first? LaFontaine's taking shot Sabre chases scoring title, already has caught dream

March 30, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Pat LaFontaine isn't worried that Mario Lemieux might beat him for the NHL scoring title.

What's important to LaFontaine is that he's in the race, and that so is Lemieux.

Only a couple of months ago, no one was sure about Lemieux's health, and, less than a decade ago, an American kid had to be very lucky to make it into the NHL at all, let alone to the top of the game.

"This is a great time for me," said LaFontaine, 28. "When I was growing up, there weren't a lot of American pro hockey players. My first dream was to earn a college scholarship to play hockey. It wasn't until the U.S. Olympic team won and Bobby Carpenter made the cover of Sports Illustrated back in 1980 and 1981 that you started dreaming of more. They opened the doors.

"Now, the way I look at this is if I can win it, it would be a great personal achievement, but more than that, if it means a young boy or girl can dream bigger dreams -- then it would be a very positive thing."

LaFontaine comes to the Capital Centre tonight with his Buffalo Sabres teammates to face the Washington Capitals. He may feel inspired here, because the Capitals gave up three points to Lemieux on Sunday, enabling him to take a one-point lead (139-138) in the scoring race during the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-1 victory.

Few give LaFontaine much of a chance in this race. Lemieux's teammate Joe Mullen, an American, said it would be great for hockey if an American did win, but added: "I wish Patty all the best. But I'm kind of rooting for Mario right now."

Washington center Mike Ridley said yesterday: "If Lemieux stays healthy, even as good as Pat is, no one will keep up with Lemieux. Pat is a superstar in our game, but Lemieux is alone above everyone."

As for Lemieux, he winked and said he has been enjoying this race the past several weeks, scoring 33 points in 10 games.

"But it's not over yet," Lemieux said. "Pat and I still have eight or nine games to play, so it's going to be a good race."

LaFontaine, who has 50 goals, 88 assists and nine games left to Lemieux's eight, doesn't dispute any of that. He even joins in the chorus. He points out he has had a 23-game advantage while Lemieux recovered first from a back ailment and then from Hodgkin's disease, and adds the Pittsburgh center would have "50 or 60 more points" if he'd been healthy.

"When I saw Mario at the All-Star Game, he told me: 'Hey, I'm going to let you get a little lead and then I'm going to come back and challenge you for the title,' " LaFontaine said. "I can now say he's a man of his word. And I'm glad, because if he can keep his word, it means he's really healthy, and that's truly what's important."

LaFontaine grew up in St. Louis and Detroit, and when barely more than a toddler, his dad introduced him to ice skating by holding his hand and pulling him around a rink.

"We'd all get up at 5 or 6 a.m., and the whole family would go to an ice rink on the weekends to skate," LaFontaine said. "As a kid, I remember I loved the freewheeling feeling, the gliding. It was so much fun."

And then it became more than fun. His brother, John Jr., was a year older, and Pat always found himself playing with the older kids.

"What I liked most was the challenge," he said. "I remember when I was 11, I was playing with guys, including Mark Hatcher -- Kevin Hatcher's brother -- who were 12 or 13, and they were 6-5 and 6-6 and I was 4-foot-2. It was pretty obvious I wasn't going to do much in front of the net, and I liked the challenge of finding a way to beat them."

When the Capitals are asked about LaFontaine, no two answers are the same. Capitals assistant coach John Perpich said it's LaFontaine's acceleration that makes the difference. Ridley said his quickness in tight situations, and defenseman Al Iafrate, who played with him in midget leagues, pointed to LaFontaine's ability to skate and pass at the same time.

"Sometimes, it looks like he's off balance and about to lose the puck, but he gets a good shot off," said Capitals goalie Don Beaupre. "You think he's tied up, but, somehow, he controls the puck with his feet and gets his stick loose and gets the shot away. You always have to be ready to make a tough stop."

HTC Detroit Red Wings coach Bryan Murray, who saw all he wanted of LaFontaine when Murray coached the Capitals and LaFontaine played for the New York Islanders, says it is the way LaFontaine reacts to the challenge that makes him special.

"Pat has toughness," Murray said. "That's the difference between him and some others with speed."

He is a relatively small man, 5-10 and 177 pounds, with bad eyes -- 20-200 in one eye, 20-400 in another. In fact, he is legally blind without his contacts. Screws that were inserted into his broken jaw 17 months ago are still there. But none of that has changed his feelings about the challenge.

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