By Mike Harrington
Pat LaFontaine made a triumphant return to Buffalo in November, thrilling the fan base with the thought one of the Sabres' legendary players could be the the catalyst to reverse the course of a franchise that had lost its way.
Just 3 1/2 months later, the dream is over.
The team said LaFontaine abruptly resigned his position as president of hockey operations Saturday night, a stunning capper to one of the most turbulent 24-hour periods in the franchise's 44-year history.
Just prior to Friday's game against San Jose, the Sabres traded longtime franchise goaltender Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues. Now LaFontaine is gone, with the team revealing he is returning to his role in the National Hockey League's central office in New York monitoring player safety issues.
Word started spreading in mid-afternoon that something was amiss in the Buffalo front office, that divisions had formed over issues like the trade of Miller and the potential contract extension for interim coach Ted Nolan.
Several reports say LaFontaine, 49, was in the middle of a power struggle in the team's executive division, while a source close to the team insisted LaFontaine simply had second thoughts about the job and was interested in returning to New York in his role with the league.
That notion is a curious one when you consider LaFontaine's son, Daniel, is a player for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres and recently announced his commitment to play for Canisius College, starting in the 2015-16 season. And where are the Ice Griffs moving their games to in the fall? To HarborCenter, the $172 million facility owner Terry Pegula is opening in front of First Niagara Center.
LaFontaine was introduced in his new role on Nov. 13 as Pegula announced the firing of coach Ron Rolston and general manager Darcy Regier. LaFontaine immediately installed Nolan, his former coach with the Sabres in the mid-90s, as the man in charge here. On Jan. 7, LaFontaine announced the hiring of Murray as Regier's replacement at GM and brought Hall of Famer Patrick into the organization as a senior advisor.
LaFontaine did not return texts from The News seeking comment. Nor did team President Ted Black, who was out of town.
The Sabres announced LaFontaine's resignation via their Twitter feed and a terse three-paragraph news release.
"I would like to thank Pat for all he has done for the organization,” Pegula said in the statement. “Pat joined us at a very difficult time and helped transition the organization down a new path. Tim Murray will continue as General Manager and Craig Patrick will continue as a Senior Hockey Advisor. As has been the case since I bought the team, we’ll continue to do whatever is needed to rebuild the organization and keep it on path towards our ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.”
"Terry Pegula hired me in November and my primary objective was to lead the Sabres organization through a time of transition,” LaFontaine said in the same club statement. "I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish in a short period of time and want to thank Terry and Kim Pegula for the opportunity and their support during my time with the Sabres.
"I also want to convey my best wishes to all of the players in the Sabres organization and to wish them the best of success in the future. Most importantly, I want to convey my heartfelt appreciation to the great fans of the Sabres for the way I have been treated here as a player and as an executive.”
Players arriving at First Niagara Center for Saturday night's "Sabres UnPucked" charity musical event were stunned to learn the news.
"It's a shocker," said defenseman Henrik Tallinder. "When he got hired, you thought he'd be here for a long time. But I don't know too much about it. I don't know what to say."
"I was shocked and very surprised," added fellow defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. "There was a lot going on here but for me it all was about the trade deadline. I didn't see that coming at all.
"I thought Patty had done a great job since he came in here and he was always good to me. I'd probably like to know as much as you guys what went behind the scenes that made that happen."
LaFontaine's departure had clearly been brewing.
He was one of the scheduled speakers at Friday's Power Play Luncheon in the Lexus Club at the FNC but was a late scratch as the crowd was told he was not feeling well. The function was a heavily promoted one featuring LaFontaine, Danny Gare, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, the four living Sabres who have their numbers retired.
LaFontaine was also not seen nor heard from Friday during the activity surrounding the big trade. LaFontaine, remember, spoke out strongly about the Sabres keeping Miller on multiple occasions and it was highly unusual for him to be absent on the night a face-of-the-franchise player like Miller was traded.
In addition, interim coach Ted Nolan revealed during his postgame news conference that he was told by Joe Battista, the team's VP of hockey-related businesses, to pull both Miller and Ott from the lineup. That was also curious. Battista, a longtime friend of Pegula, was just hired this year from Penn State and has zero NHL experience.
LaFontaine clearly wants Nolan to get the coaching job on a permanent basis and a source close to the team said those negotiations are ongoing. But Murray said on a radio interview Friday on a Toronto station that the status of Nolan was something he might look at after the season and that Nolan would have a role within the organization -- but never said that role would be as the coach.
This is LaFontaine's second quick exit from an NHL front office. He worked just 40 days as an unpaid senior adviser for New York Islanders owner Charles Wang before resigning in July, 2006 because he disagreed with Wang's decision to fire general manager Neil Smith and replace him with Garth Snow.
"It's been a really tough 24 hours," Ehrhoff said. "Yesterday was a tough trade to take for the team when you lose your captain and your starting goaltender and to see Patty resign today is another tough blow. I'm just shocked right now."