After his Hall of Fame career in the NHL was over, Pat LaFontaine wasn't finished chasing athletic challenges. So the former New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers star decided to transition from centerman to ironman.
"Hockey players aren't built to run or swim. But we can bike," he said. "I had never been a runner or a tri-athlete. But I've taught myself over the last five or six years."
The next challenge for LaFontaine: Running in the 2009 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 1. "I always wanted to do the New York City Marathon," he said. "To do it under these circumstances, and to promote physical fitness for kids, is a win-win. I'm really excited."
LaFontaine is running to raise awareness for the ING Run for Something Better (RFSB) program, which provides funding for school-based running programs and encourages physical fitness in the battle against childhood obesity. With a donation of at least $10, ING will send out a bright pair of orange shoe laces, which it hopes joins pink ribbons and yellow bracelets in the iconography of good causes. The initiative has generated over $2.5 million to fund grants for school-based running programs.
LaFontaine, who has his own children's hospital charity called Companions in Courage, will be competing in the marathon against another famous skater supporting the RFSB campaign: Former Olympian Dan Jansen, who won a gold medal for speed skating in the 1994 Winter Games.
"Dan Jansen can do a 3:20 marathon," said LaFontaine of his competition.
"Yeah ... but can he take an elbow?"
We spoke with LaFontaine about becoming a marathon man, his stand against hits to the head in hockey, Team USA's chances for Olympic gold in the 2010 Winter Games and whether he considers Alexander Ovechkin(notes), Sidney Crosby(notes) or Evgeni Malkin(notes) to be the best player in the world right now.
Q. A lot of athletes run out of function rather than out of passion. How did you make the transition, mentally, into distance running?
LAFONTAINE: We're anaerobic athletes: Short-bursting, powerful hockey players. I learned it's pace, not race. You work on your breathing, your technique and your gait. It's like anything else: It's practice.
I realized when I retired that there's that void in physical activity. So I started biking a lot, and I always told myself that before I was 40 I was going to do an Ironman. Turned out they had this whole charity challenge for the Ironman.
I had never run more than two miles, and never swam more than 100 yards. But I loved to bike. So I taught myself; finally I realized that I played 900 games in the National Hockey League, and at some point the adrenaline better kick in or [just] put me under. And it did.
My philosophy [at the time of the Ironman] was that it was an easy day. Visiting kids in children's hospitals, as I've done throughout my career, that's a tough day. Doing something for a higher cause than yourself got me through it.
Q. Are any other hockey players into marathons?
Mike Richter ran one two years ago. I thought I might have to race him [this year], and there was no way I was ever going to let a goalie beat me.
And then I get a speed skater, with my luck.
Q. Do you still watch the NHL on a regular basis?
I've always looked at the upside of the game, and I appreciate and respect the young talent. I'm a fan. My son plays, and I'm coaching his team at 14. I do follow [the NHL].
Q. Who's the best player in the world right now?
The thing about Ovechkin is that he does everything. He busts his rear end to get back defensively, he hits like a train. The guy can carry a team. He's a game-breaker.
But Crosby and Malkin ... Crosby does everything so well. He's so great laterally, a smooth skater and I've never seen a guy use his feet so well -- to kick pucks up, to angle pucks, to pass with his feet.
If you were to ask me the top three players [it's them]. If you're telling me you want a guy to carry the team for a period by himself, Ovechkin's that kind of guy. Do you want a guy who can make a huge play at a given notice? Crosby's the same way.
Those two guys and Malkin ... they're all game-breakers. The Penguins are lucky to have two of them on the same team. They're primed for a long run. They remind me of the Edmonton Oilers [in the 1980s]: Tons of talent and they got one under their belts young.
Q. We talked with Messier recently about his head-injury initiatives. Did you ever get involved on a League level considering your history with them?
Yeah, I was actually just part of the video that the NHLPA just came out with [for youth hockey] that talks about awareness. I was part of the American Academy of Neurology and working with that too. Obviously, there are serious concerns, but we've come a long way. We still have a ways to go.
I'm a proponent of taking the head out of the game. The last thing you would want to see today is an Ovechkin or a Crosby or a Malkin or a Kane have to retire five or 10 years early because we didn't protect their heads.
Q. Does that mean you're in favor of the measures the PA was talking about with regard to cracking down on hits to the head?
I am. I'm hoping there's some kind of revised version of that. My philosophy is that if you can try the crease rule for three years, realize it doesn't work and take it out, don't tell me you can't make changes [to the game].
There's going to be the odd collision when the guy's head is too low to the ice. I'm all for a physical game; good clean hitting is part of our game. But the intentional hits? Don't tell me you can't make a split-second decision. We make split-second decisions all over the ice.
We just taught a whole group of NHL defensemen not to clutch and grab anymore. Don't tell me we can't teach kids not to hit a player in a certain position.
Hitting from behind is another huge concern. Now that there's no red line, guys are going extremely fast. My fear is that ... I hope it doesn't take a player not getting up to finally realize we should have made a change years before. I'm surprised it hasn't happened.
Q. Is there one rule change you'd make in the NHL right now?
You know in lacrosse, when the ball is shot and it's a speed race to where the ball goes out of bounds? I think we should do that on icing.
Maybe the dot of the circle ... the first guy to the dot. If it's the [defensive] team, it's an icing.
Q. Finally, on the Olympics: You think we're going to medal this year?
I do. I played for Ron Wilson, and won the World Cup in '96. It's a short tournament, and we've got a lot of energy. Playing on an NHL rink [in Vancouver], it's a different game.
We've got a good, young talented team with a versatile, speedy defense. I don't think we're going to be favored up there with Canada and Russia and Sweden. But I think we could sneak in there. I really do.