Lafontaine: Not About Money Anymore

Posted: February 25, 1991

The contract talks have dragged on for 10 months now - since May, when New York Islanders general manager Bill Torrey approached Pat LaFontaine's agent about a contract extension. Then, LaFontaine - undisputed star of the Islanders' organization - was happy to talk. He thought Torrey's move was a vote of confidence, a sign of appreciation for the 105-point season he had just completed.

Now, Pat LaFontaine feels differently. Insulted. Manipulated. Taken for granted. A few weeks ago, he did what he had never dreamed of doing. He asked the Islanders for a trade.

It is, of course, all about money. Last night at the Spectrum, LaFontaine looked - to quote an anonymous teammate - "like a general manager's dream." He played double shifts and all the power plays, compiling at least 30 minutes of ice time. The Islanders lost to the Flyers, 4-3, but their first goal was the product of LaFontaine's tremendous speed and perfect passing, and Philadelphia didn't feel safe anytime he was in the game.

"He's such a skilled player and he's got great speed," said Flyers center Keith Acton, who spent much of the game shadowing LaFontaine. "He's dangerous whenever he has the puck."

LaFontaine is mentioned in the same breath with Detroit's Steve Yzerman, St. Louis's Brett Hull, and, on occasion, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux. He is one of the league's 10 best players. He is also its 38th-highest paid, earning, with bonuses, $425,000 in his eighth year with the team.

The offers have gone back and forth between Torrey and Don Meehan, LaFontaine's agent. LaFontaine says he expects to be paid about as much as Yzerman, who makes about $1.5 million a year. Torrey's highest offer was $6 million over five years. LaFontaine rejected that deal because, he says, the payment of much of his salary was to be deferred.

Other NHL players have called his situation "embarrassing." The Long Island fans back him completely, chanting "Patty must stay," after each of his goals, and hanging signs with messages like "Trade Torrey instead."

After LaFontaine went public with his trade demand last weekend, Torrey responded with a news conference, during which he claimed the player's comments had "damaged" the Islanders' season and "I resent that."

Torrey said that he would consider only extending LaFontaine's current contract and that renegotiation was out of the question.

"The team comes first," Torrey said. "Each and every player has the right to do the best he can in his contract negotiations, and I have no problem with that at any point in time. But there is a place for that."

LaFontaine has said repeatedly in the past week that he no longer wants the Islanders' money, that the issues are beyond that now. But if Torrey called him tomorrow morning and offered him the full $1.5 million a year? No strings? Then, would he change his mind?

"Money's not the issue," he said. "Without getting into any debate over the particular situation, I can say simply that it's been going on for 10 months and I've been very frustrated at times. I've made a decision based on respect and honesty and communication. It wasn't an easy thing.

"Mr. Torrey and Mr. (John) Pickett (the Islanders' owner), they're well aware of the situation at hand, and I guess their views of me as a member of this team and this franchise are pretty clear."

His statements are not as cautious as they were in the early stages of this ever-worsening contract fiasco. He mentions, gently but firmly and without specifics, the Islanders' poor treatment of past players.

"Something's fishy," said Rick Tocchet, who renegotiated his Flyers contract in the preseason and makes about twice as much money as LaFontaine. ''It doesn't say good things (about the Islanders' franchise). Let's face it. He's the key to their team. He carried them last year to the playoffs and he's carried them this year."

LaFontaine says that, like Tocchet, almost everyone he speaks with respects what he did.

"There have been (supportive) gestures, but some of those people are in certain situations, and it probably wouldn't be to their advantage for me to mention their names," LaFontaine said, grinning as he nodded his head in the direction of the shower room, which was still filled with teammates. "I've made my decision and I'm glad. It will be better this way."

In reality, though, LaFontaine has little chance of getting his wish this season. The trade deadline is March 5, a week from today. It is unrealistic to believe that the Islanders will make a deal by then. And with a new collective bargaining agreement due in September - one that might give more leeway to players - a trade before the June 22 entry draft would be risky for any team that takes LaFontaine, who is committed only through the end of next season.

"I'm not really too sure of (his trade prospects)," LaFontaine said. ''I'd like to put this behind me, but I've made a commitment to the fans and the team to play out my contract."

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