by Ann Liguori
What happens when you put three former hockey greats – Pat LaFontaine, Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom — in a room together? You are immediately transformed to an era in sports where the heart and the soul of an athlete outweighed the financial rewards of winning; where they continue to support each other and help people in need, years after they stopped playing; and where you probably won’t meet three nicer, more ‘giving’ guys on the planet! Former NY Islanders teammates, Pat LaFontaine, Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystom, played in the IGHL (Independent Group Home Living) charity golf outing this past Monday at the Huntington Crescent Club. LaFontaine was honored for the inspiring work he does with his own Foundation, The Companions in Courage Foundation (www.CiC16.org), which builds interactive game rooms in children’s hospitals throughout North America. And as they do so often, Gillies and Nystrom were there to support their friend and former teammate LaFontaine, and IGHL, an organization that has become near and dear to their hearts. Steve Webb, who played for the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins, was also there to support the honoree and his friend, LaFontaine.
IGHL cares for the developmentally disabled on Long Island with residential homes and day programs. Since 1978, the organization has provided life-time alternatives for children and adults who are developmentally disabled so that they can realize their full potential as human beings and contributing members of their community. IGHL also run affiliate programs including the New Interdisciplinary School, a learning center for children and their families; Angela’s House for technology dependent children; and The Flower Barn, a nursery and garden center which supplies plants and flowers to the community.
Frank Lombardi, the assistant to IGHL CEO Walter W. Stockton and Director of the IGHL Foundation, is a huge Rangers fan and was delighted when Pat LaFontaine accepted the opportunity to be honored at the golf outing (LaFontaine played his last year of his NHL career with the NY Rangers in 1998). “Pat often says he loved playing for the three NHL teams in New York – the NY Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and the NY Rangers — and thus, never had to change the license on his car,” quips Lombardi.
“Throughout his career, Pat LaFontaine has always been supportive of charities and his work in this area is incredible,” says Lombardi. “We are happy to have him as a new friend of IGHL. We showed Pat and Jim Johnson, the Executive Director of the Companions in Courage Foundation, a few of our programs. Pat immediately connected with many of the disabled people he met during the tour. He was most interactive with both the staff and the individuals in the homes. His enthusiasm for helping others is inspiring!”
Jim Johnson agrees. “As great of a hockey player as Pat was, he’s even a better human being,” shares Johnson. “I took my son, who is now 19-years-old, up to play hockey at Pat’s house years ago and I told my son, ‘I want you to watch Pat and the way he treats people. You will make me very proud if you treat people as nice as Pat does.’ And when we were done playing, my son said, ‘You were right Dad. Pat is the nicest person I’ve ever met.’ He is an unbelievably nice person. He could be doing so many other things with his life and his ‘celebrity’ but he chose to help out other people and that’s all you have to know about Pat.”
After the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, LaFontaine joined the New York Islanders and four-time Stanley Cup winners Nystrom and Gillies. That year, LaFontaine helped the Isles advance to the Stanley Cup finals but they lost to Edmonton in five games. Edmonton, with the help of Wayne Gretzky (whom LaFontaine would later play with when he played for the NY Rangers in 1997-1998) went on to win five Cups in the next seven years. In 1987, LaFontaine scored his most famous goal in the ‘Easter Epic,’ when he scored the winning goal in the fourth over-time period of game seven against the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semi-finals. He spent eight years with the Islanders before being traded to the Sabres. In Buffalo, he earned the club record for most goals scored by a center (53) and his 95 assists and 148 points became a team record. His jersey was retired in Buffalo in March of 2006. Three years earlier, he was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame.
Johnson and a group of Pat’s friends went up to Buffalo for the ceremony and Johnson recalls: “We were in the car and turned on a sports radio talk show up there and 90 per cent of the calls were from people who spoke about Pat’s good works, helping others. One father called in and talked about how Pat went to a children’s hospital to visit his daughter who was sick, another called to say that Pat was a pall bearer at his son’s funeral, another called to say how inspirational Pat’s talk was at his kid’s youth hockey team. After the ceremony, we decided to go to a little place for a beer and a guy motions that he would like to buy Pat a beer and asked if it would be okay to talk to him. He told Pat, “I never thought I would have the opportunity to thank you in person! You made it possible for me to bring ten of my friends into your luxury suite to watch a game, days before having brain surgery.’ Johnson continues the story: “He pulled back his hair to show Pat the scar. He told Pat, ‘You gave me so much confidence that I could get through this and get back to a normal life.’ We all sat there and had tears in our eyes after that one. We couldn’t have had a more fitting end to that evening. That’s what happens when you are around Pat.”
Through his playing days, Pat was inspired by the many children he visited in hospitals and was often told by medical professionals, just how important his visits were to the well-being of their patients. With the help of the Microsoft Corporation and Cisco Systems, his Foundation builds and designs Lion’s Den Rooms in hospitals which offer children a variety of programs to interact with each other, games and video presentations and to connect with their friends, family and celebrities.
The IGHL golf outing on Monday attracted passionate hockey fans who truly appreciate LaFontaine, Gillies and Nystrom, and their work, on and off the ice. As the Master of Ceremonies, I mentioned how most hockey players whom I’ve interviewed and gotten to know through the years, are some of the nicest, most genuine people in all of sports. Pat LaFontaine, Clark Gillies and Bobby Nystrom prove that theory in every way.
Be sure to visit Ann’s web site at www.annliguori.com to order copies of her book and DVD interviews with top legends in sports.