LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — Just the other day, Pat LaFontaine--handyman, gardener, unemployed hockey player--was strolling through his leafy Centerport neighborhood with his wife when he suddenly turned, squeezed her hand and said, "You know, Marybeth, pretty soon I'm going to have to start looking for a job."
This was his idea of a joke.
"We try to stay positive," LaFontaine said. "We help each other. We talk about things. We're doing OK."
As usual, LaFontaine sounds happy, upbeat -- as much of a trademark with the New York Islanders as his speed and daring. After two months as a reluctant but determined holdout, though, it has come down to this: LaFontaine, wrench in hand, doing the plumbing, or clearing the dinner dishes, or rolling around on the living room floor with his 11-month-old daughter.
This is LaFontaine's life now, his life as a big star locked in a long, bitter contract dispute that threatens his future with the club, and the club's future, for that matter. This is why LaFontaine is secluded at home, figuring, hey, things could be worse, nobody died.
"I love hockey," he said. "I'd love to be playing, but since I'm not, I look at it the best way I can. Like, some days, I think, 'Oh, the team is here, the team is there. I'd be gone from home right now.' But Sarah just took her first couple of steps. I'm glad I was around to see it."
Like most athletes who are bound by practice schedules and dress codes, LaFontaine is a creature of habit, except now the routine is an artificial creation. He skates each morning at the indoor rink Bryan Trottier owns in Port Washington, where he is sometimes joined by former New York Rangers Bernie Nicholls -- since his trade to Edmonton, another hold-out -- and Ron Duguay. He is home by 1 p.m., climbs on the StairMaster, eats lunch, hangs out.
"We walk the dogs," he said. "I rake the leaves, work on my deck. I've gotten to see Long Island in the fall and do all the little things I haven't been able to do for seven years. I say, 'C'mon, Marybeth, get the stroller and let's go for a walk,' or 'Let's go to Heckscher Park and watch them race the sailboats.' It helps pass the time."
Sometimes, the phone rings and it's Islanders Randy Wood or Brent Sutter or Derek King. They tell him what's going on, they laugh a little, but it's not the same as being there on the ice, with Coach Al Arbour blowing his whistle and ice chips spraying all around. And on game nights, LaFontaine said, "I'll turn on the TV and watch them for a while, if I'm not too busy."
"Yeah, right," Marybeth said. "He always says he's not going to watch the game, but then he sits down in front of the TV and he doesn't move for three hours. He watches the whole game, the entire game."
It's not a pretty picture, LaFontaine forlorn, slumped on the couch, itching to get his skates back on, except that it isn't really that way at all. It's a matter of principle, he says, a matter of the broken promises and the deterioration of the franchise. Seeing the team struggle and the fans flee doesn't make him feel better. It makes him feel he's right.
It helps, naturally, that he's under no financial pressure because of investments and a stock portfolio and the king's ransom he can anticipate making next year, somewhere, as a free agent. But if this was about money before, it's not anymore.
If it was just about money, he'd have taken the four-year, $6-million offer the Islanders finally laid on the table last month. It's more than that.
"Money isn't the issue," he said. "People have a tough time understanding that. There were times when I thought it'd be best to go back and take the money, but I made a promise to myself that I was going to do the right thing, to stand up for what I believe in. To me, it's an easy decision. To be willing to sacrifice something you love, like hockey, for the right reason -- I'd say to do it every time.
"The only tough part is watching the games on TV. I think if I was playing I'd be helping out, whether it was here or with another team. I'm glad to see the guys doing well, that they're coming through this adversity. I hope the fans stay behind them. Look, I spent seven years here. I want them to do well. I try to feel what they're feeling. I picture what Al is saying to them in the locker room, what they're doing between periods."
LaFontaine makes it clear: He didn't leave Arbour, or the players. "I left the organization."
It's been unpleasant, all around, to say the least. The Islanders offered to renegotiate his $425,000 salary 18 months ago when the NHL salary structure was going topsy-turvey, then reneged. LaFontaine walked out of training camp last year, returned, bristled at statements from owner John O. Pickett, tearfully demanded a trade in January, and it went downhill from there.