Sunday, November 08, 2009

Local Boy LaFontaine Missed, but Red Wings Did OK with Yzerman

He played hockey in Waterford, growing up in the northern Oakland County burg in the 1970s—a decade of horrors when it came to his local team, the Detroit Red Wings.

As he honed his skills as an adolescent and started depositing pucks into opposing goals with eye-popping frequency, the Red Wings were stumbling through the National Hockey League, soiling what had once been a tradition-rich franchise history.

As the 1980s arrived, his name started to become known beyond Waterford. It didn’t hurt that it had a bit of royalty to its sound.

Pat LaFontaine, from Waterford, was off to play junior hockey in Quebec, in a town called Verdun. He was 17 years old.

In his lone season in the Quebec Junior League, LaFontaine made a mockery of it.

In 70 games, LaFontaine, a center, scored 104 goals. He added 130 assists for 234 points—over three points a game.

It was obvious that the QMJHL wasn’t big enough to hold his talent.

Down I-75 from where LaFontaine grew up, the Red Wings were playing to half-empty houses at Joe Louis Arena. The team had a new owner—a pizza pie guy named Mike Ilitch—but the only thing that seemed to change at JLA was that Little Caesars pizza was being served officially at the concession stands. The product on the ice was still miserably bad.

But the Red Wings held the fourth overall choice in the 1983 draft. They’d have a good shot at nabbing LaFontaine off the board.

It was GM Jimmy Devellano’s first draft with the Red Wings. He was Ilitch’s first-ever Wings hire in 1982, but Jimmy D. joined the team too late to participate in the draft that year.

Folks around town salivated at the thought of what local kid Pat LaFontaine could do in a Red Wings sweater.

The Red Wings wanted LaFontaine. The kid, by all accounts, was open to playing NHL hockey back home after his one year hiatus spent in Quebec.

Devellano didn’t make his mark as a hockey rink rat by targeting just one player, though. He knew that things didn’t always work out the way you’d like. He’d have to be ready to select another player, should LaFontaine already be gone.

Red Wings fans didn’t care about anyone else, though. Pat LaFontaine grew up in Waterford, and he should play for the Red Wings, dammit!

The New York Islanders, Devellano’s old team—the one he helped build into a dynasty in the late-1970s—held the third overall pick. It was by sheer luck, through trade, that they had a pick so high, because the Isles were defending Stanley Cup champs.

Sure enough, Jimmy D’s team stuck it to their old employee, nabbing LaFontaine with the pick just prior to Detroit’s.


No matter; with people back in Detroit slugged in the gut, Devellano picked himself up from the mat, deeply disappointed, and went with his Plan B.

No one knew how to pronounce Steve Yzerman’s name when the news came that he was the newest Red Wing.

Some thought it was Eezer-man. Others said no, it’s Why-zerman.

Jimmy D. not only knew how to say it, he knew all about the kid attached to it.

Yzerman’s numbers while playing for Peterborough in the Ontario Junior League weren’t as impressive as LaFontaine’s, but numbers never tell the whole story.

Devellano knew that Yzerman, the son of an Ottawa politician, quiet as a mouse, could be a big-time star in the NHL.

They played a video clip of Devellano, speaking in his squeaky Canadian-laced voice, at his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. He was talking about this new kid Yzerman, shortly after drafting him in the summer of ’83.

“We feel he can contribute right away,” Jimmy D. said. “My only concern is that because of his age – he’s only 18 – his strength is a question mark.”

Then, one of the biggest understatements in hockey history, as it turned out.

“But I think he’s gonna make it,” Devellano added.

Drafts in any sport are a crapshoot. All the studying and scouting in the world can’t predict what a kid is going to do once he starts playing the sport for money.

Even Yzerman himself didn’t really know.

I cornered him at Cobo after Jimmy D’s induction that October night in 2006.

Doesn’t it seem silly now, I asked, to see Jimmy speak about you in such uncertain terms?

Yzerman gave that bashful smile.

“Well,” he said, “not many people knew for sure back then, eh?”

I suppose not.

Monday, Yzerman will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Monday. He’ll be inducted with two former teammates: snipers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille.

It’ll be 26 years, and some change, since he arrived in Detroit with that funny last name and the baggage of NOT being Pat LaFontaine.

LaFontaine, for his part, had a fine NHL career. He was no draft bust. A quick check on the Internet gives the numbers: 468 goals, 545 assists, 1,013 points. But no Stanley Cups—and a career cut short thanks to concussions. LaFontaine was only 33 when he played his last NHL game.

Yzerman played until he was about a week shy of his 41st birthday. He scored 692 goals, had 1,755 points, and won three Stanley Cups and the hearts of Red Wings fans forever. His jersey hangs in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, next to those of Howe and Abel and Lindsay and the rest.

All because the New York Islanders, Jimmy’s old employers, decided that they wanted the kid from Waterford, Pat LaFontaine, for themselves.

We cursed and grumbled in Detroit, then Steve Yzerman suited up and started playing some hockey for the Red Wings.

Jimmy Devellano’s hunch was right.

“I think he’s gonna make it.”

Yeah, just a bit.

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