Hockey legend’s son starts collegiate career with Griffs

By Dominic Chamberlain

Sports Editor

“May, Audette, in front of the net they score! La la la la la la la la la la la la la LaFontaine!” If that doesn’t ring a bell try this one: “LaFontaine in over the line, LaFontaine takes his shot, took his shot, scores! Tis the season, fa la la la la, la LaFontaine!”

Any self-respecting Sabres fan knows those are two of the most famous calls by Buffalo Sabres play by play announcer Rick Jeanneret and they came courtesy of one man, Sabres legend Pat LaFontaine.

LaFontaine’s career is storied. He played for three teams over his 15-year National Hockey League career. It just so happens he only ever called New York home over that time, playing only for the three teams located in the state, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, and of course the Buffalo Sabres.

In his career, Pat played in 865 games while scoring 468 goals with 545 assists for 1013 points. These numbers helped him to become the captain of the Sabres team in 1992, a title he would hold until his departure in 1997.

Pat’s success in the playoffs cannot go unmentioned either. In 69 total appearances, he tallied 26 goals and 36 assists for 62 points. The five-time NHL All-Star and one time Bill Masterton Trophy winner would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003 and in 2006 his number 16 was raised to the rafters of the then-HSBC Arena.

You could discuss the greatness of Pat LaFontaine all day, all the goals, the amazing plays, and whatever else comes to mind. But for people old enough to remember they are just memories, for the rest of us they are just legends that will live on through YouTube videos.

Today we don’t have Pat LaFontaine dazzling on the ice for the Sabres. No, today we have his son, Daniel LaFontaine, doing it for the Griffs.

As you might expect, Daniel was playing hockey from a young age, “I think I was four when I started,” he said. “You know, with my dad playing in the NHL, I was around it so he got me into it.”

Pat would actually be around a lot for Daniel as his hockey career began.  Daniel was born in 1995 while Pat retired from the NHL in 1997. And though Pat stayed involved in the NHL after retirement, the grueling travel and the physical toll that comes with being on an NHL roster was not affecting Pat anymore.

Daniel would play youth hockey, honing his skill until the 2013-14 Ontario Junior Hockey League season. It was then that Daniel would make the Buffalo Junior Sabres hockey team.

“I was at a few camps,” Daniel said in reference to the start of his Jr. Sabres career. “I talked to [Michael] Peca and he said ‘you know there is a forward spot open.’ So I ended up just going there kind of last minute and I think it all worked out good.”

As if Daniel didn’t have enough connections to the Sabres already. Peca is not only another great Sabres player but he is also the man that was named captain of the Sabres after Pat left to play with the Rangers. Peca has served as the head coach of the Jr. Sabres and currently serves as the General Manager and Director of Hockey Operations for the team. Also a coach on the team is the beloved former Sabres backup goaltender Martin Biron.

“Oh it was awesome,” Daniel said about his time with the Jr. Sabres. “I mean some of the guys on the [Griffs] team now are some of my teammates from the Jr. Sabres. And having coaches like Michael Peca and John Tucker, they were great coaches and it was just a lot of fun.”

The Jr. Sabres seem to have a knack for producing talented young hockey players. In addition to Daniel, Ryan Schmelzer, Nolan Sheeran, Joshua Gabriel and Josh Kielich all played for the Jr. Sabres. Don’t think the Griffs are recruiting these players due to their proximity alone. Schmelzer plays on the top line alongside leading scorers Ralph Cuddemi and Shane Conacher. Sheeran, in his second year with the team, has been a flexible option for the Griffs and has proved that he can come through in the clutch with two game-winning goals in his young career.

“Jr. Sabres have definitely been improving over the years,” said Sheeran. “With just the league that we are in and, at least when I played, we had Mike Peca as the coach which is obviously a pretty big deal. He knows a lot about the game so the coaching staff there helped a lot. Having him helped all of us develop our game when we were on Jr. Sabres.”

All of that has led to this for Daniel. A Hall of Fame father and legends for coaches with the Jr. Sabres have prepared Daniel for the next phase of his career, NCAA Division I hockey. For Daniel, the deciding factor on why he chose Canisius wasn’t the success his father had in the city; he picked Canisius because it felt right.

“When I talked to [Head Coach] Dave [Smith] and the assistant coaches and I think that after my visit I really liked it here.” said Daniel. “I wanted to come here. I think just in general Buffalo is a great area.”

The success Daniel had with the Jr. Sabres definitely made him appealing.  Daniel played 47 games over two seasons for the Jr. Sabres. In that time he scored nine goals but tallied 27 assists for 36 points. He certainly proved he has what it takes to be a successful player. Head Coach Dave Smith had nothing but high praise for his young forward.

Coach Smith summed up why he recruited Daniel in three words, “Speed, skill, and competitiveness. That’s the same starting point we start with for everybody. He’s got a wonderful IQ, he’s a good hockey player and then it was a good fit here in Western New York.”

As a player Daniel brings all of that much like his father did. Pat was, without a question, one of the best American born hockey players ever. Any Pat LaFontaine highlight surely has him blowing by defenders with his blistering speed and if not that he was dekeing his way around both defenseman and goalies. Sheeran even sees these types of skills in Daniel.

“I think he’s been doing well,” said Sheeran. “He’s a pretty confident player, he’s good at creating space for other people and that’s because of his puck control. He’s not turning the puck over he’s not passing the puck away, he’s using his body to protect the puck and make time for himself and others.”

Coach Smith echoed Sheeran’s assessment of Daniel saying, “He’s a puck possession guy who has skill. He does have to work on his game and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Danny yet. The vision for him is that he can be a power play guy, he can be a top six forward… and he’s on that path.”

Coach Smith has talked in the past about how difficult the jump from Juniors to NCAA hockey can be. Earlier this year Coach Smith called it “the biggest jump in the sport,” but Daniel seems to be transitioning well. Maybe part of that goes back to Pat.

“Having a dad who played in the NHL, he’s been a good role model for me,” said Daniel. “So I always had a guy to look up to. He has always helped me out with stuff that was hockey related so that was always good for me.” He continued “He’s been great for me. He texts me after games and he’s been up to a bunch of the games here this year. It’s just been great he talks to me all the time.”

Undoubtedly one of these times was on Oct. 23 after the Griffs took on the Holy Cross Crusaders at HARBORCENTER. It was during this game that Daniel scored the first goal of his collegiate career, making him the first of the Griffs’ 12 freshmen to do so. It was something Daniel will always remember.

“It was surreal,” said Daniel. “I didn’t even know it went in and once it did my hands were up and it was a really cool feeling. And hopefully I can get some more here down the road.”

Since then Daniel has added another goal to his year total when he put one past the Ohio State Buckeyes goaltender in a 6-4 loss. Out of the seven games he has played in this season he has those two goals on only four shots on net. While he excelled at getting assists with the Jr. Sabres he hasn’t found anybody’s stick for one yet but Coach Smith knows that his young forward doesn’t get discouraged by that.

“He’s a pro,” said Coach Smith. “He’s the son of a pro. He doesn’t get too high he doesn’t get too low. He recognizes that words are powerful and he’s just aware. He’s aware of the team’s situation and his own spot on that team. So professionalism is one word that I would use for him.”

Ironic. The son of one of the greatest American professional hockey players already exemplifies professionalism as a college freshman. We don’t know how much longer Rick Jeanneret will be calling Sabres games but you can almost hear the iconic voice of the Sabres now: “Like father like son, la la la la la la LaFontaine.”

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