The Hockey News
May 23, 2023
The date — April 5, 1990 — is one that Former New York Islanders center, Pat LaFontaine never will forget. For worse — and better — it changed his life and has led to the Hall of Famer’s crusade to make hockey safer to play.
In this case the key is “Valor,” which is the name of what could be the world’s safest hockey helmet. Pat has been helping develop it for several years.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a National Hockey Leaguer,” said Pat, “or a kid just starting to play the game. We were inspired to reimagine a helmet that could protect all levels and forms of the game.”
The roots of LaFontaine’s interest in better head protection were planted 33 years ago in Manhattan.
What happened to LaFontaine that fateful night at Madison Square Garden could have killed him.
It was Game One of the Rangers-Islanders playoff, and hate was in the air. The two coaches — Al Arbour for the Nassaumen and Roger Neilson of the
Blueshirts — had been verbally dueling for a while. Now it got nastier.
Neilson, whose 1978 Maple Leafs physically beat Arbour’s Islanders in a playoff upset, was notorious for his teams playing “physical” hockey. On this night, Roger underlined the point by starting toughie Chris Nilan on the first line.
Here’s how one reporter described the gory follow-up:
“Right off the puck drop, Nilan charged LaFontaine behind the play and elbowed him in the left temple. Later in the period, Rangers defenseman Randy Moller caught Pat in the chin.”
That was only the start of LaFontaine’s troubles. Late in the third period, Pat chased down a Don Maloney head-man pass at the top of the Rangers zone.
In the book “Rangers vs. Islanders,” which I co-authored with Zachary Weinstock, we wrote:
“BOOM! James Patrick knocked him off the puck. Chris Nilan knocked him on his behind — a quasi-dirty double-dip. Patty’s neck whiplashed hard, and the back of his head SMACKED! the ice. It was Lights. Out.”
Pat was unconscious for almost a minute. A trainer had to slip a tongue depressor in the superstar’s mouth to ensure proper breathing.
“His eyeballs were nowhere to be found,” said Maloney.
The game started with a high hit on LaFontaine, and it was ending with a high hit on LaFontaine.
Moller: “We weren’t going out there trying to kill Patty. But if we had an
opportunity to be physical, hit him, we were going to take that opportunity. We knew that if we were going to be successful, we would have to neutralize him.”
The next day, Islanders boss Bill Torrey sent a report to Rangers g.m. Neil Smith accusing Madison Square Garden of mishandling LaFontaine’s medical care, Bow Tie Bill pointed out that LaFontaine’s trip to the hospital was unnecessarily delayed because officials insisted on an in-house examination.
Weinstock: “The Isles also claimed that the ambulance lacked sufficient equipment and that it was rocked and pounded by Rangers fans as it left The Garden.”
What’s the point?
While LaFontaine eventually recovered to enjoy an illustrious career, the threat of the April 5, 1990 episode repeating itself always became a part of Patty’s concerns.
“One of my thoughts was to have someone develop an elevated version of a helmet that would minimize damage,” Pat recalled. “Eventually, I found experts who were on the same page as I was.”
The longtime Islanders idol — and still Long Island resident — searched long and hard to find the right helmet partners. In 2004 he met famed neurologist and concussion specialist, Dr. James Kelly. They bonded on the safety issue.
“I learned a lot from Dr. Kelly,” Pat remembered, “and he’s been a big help moving me on our helmet mission.”
In conversations with the specialist, LaFontaine recalled other traumatic episodes. When Patty skated for the Buffalo Sabres, he was dangerously floored by a 6-6 defenseman. More recently, his hockey-playing son Daniel’s injury proved to be yet another catalyst in the helmet crusade.
LaFontaine: “I’ve often said, ‘You don’t choose the calling; the calling chooses you.”
Which brings us to Pat’s helmet company, Valor Hockey, and its helmet is named Axiom. The firm’s team includes 18-year NHL veteran Scott Thornton, helmet-maker and designer David Muskovitz, along with business partners and investors.
So far, Pat’s Valor helmet has passed all critical tests, and — for the first time in six years — it earned a coveted five-star rating from the experts at Virginia Tech.
In addition, The Atlantic Amateur Hockey Association (AAHA) — an affiliate of USA Hockey — joined LaFontaine and Valor Hockey in promoting player safety with the five-star helmet.
“We’re excited to support the effort of the AAHA to elevate both the safety and well-being of everyone associated with the organization,” said Patty. “Like Valor and the AAHA the belief is that hockey should be experienced in a positive, safe environment.”
According to a press release, “The Valor helmet provides game-changing protection and performance through innovation. The design and technical features of the helmet are focused on the effort to significantly reduce the impact of both linear and, importantly, rotational forces.”
Glenn Hefferan, President of AAHA, added: “Maintaining the health and well-being of our skaters as they pursue the sport they love is a top priority for our coaches and families.
“The Valor Hockey helmet is a game-changer for youth hockey programs, and we are thrilled to partner with Pat LaFontaine and Valor in its adoption.”
One of the helmet’s key features is that — unlike many head protectors now in use — the Valor won’t come off; cannot become undone.”
“The way I see it,” Pat added, “It’s more than just a product. It’s something that follows thoughts behind the 2017 Declaration of Hockey Principles, which stresses the values of our great game.”
Then a pause: “What we’ve done with the Valor is moved beyond the traditional. This is a helmet that’s been re-imagined!”
And then one final thought:
“If I had this Valor helmet that night at The Garden, I’m sure that my career would have lasted a lot longer than it did! I have a saying in life; ‘Score your goals when you’re young because when you get older, life is about assists. And as for the Valor helmet, it’s an assist to the future of The Game!”