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LaFontaine Sets a Good Example for U.S. Olympic Hockey Team

Times Staff Writer

Of the 79 ice hockey players at the U.S. Olympic Festival who are trying to become part of the 1988 Olympic team, 58 have been drafted by National Hockey League teams. Six were drafted in the first round, nine in the second round.

Officials of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS), who will choose the team, realize many of the players selected will have a difficult dollars-and-sense decision ahead of them, whether to go for the gold or go for the green.

So the officials tell the players the story of Brian Lawton.

And they tell them the story of Pat LaFontaine.

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Lawton, a forward from Cumberland, R.I., was the first player selected in the NHL’s 1983 draft. He went to the 1983 Festival in Colorado Springs, earned a place on the 1984 Olympic team and then decided his place was not in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, but in the NHL. He signed with the Minnesota North Stars. Three years later, he has not developed into the outstanding player virtually everyone assumed he would become.

LaFontaine, a forward from Detroit, was the third player selected in the NHL’s 1983 draft. But, inspired by the United States’ “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, he told the New York Islanders he could not join them until after he played for the Olympic team in Sarajevo. Three years later, he has become one of the NHL’s best young players, scoring 70 points (38 goals, 32 assists) last season for the Islanders.

Coincidence?

LaFontaine does not think so.

“When I reflect on that summer (of 1983), I realize I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL,” he said. “I wasn’t physically strong enough, and I wasn’t mentally mature enough. But in the time between then and the Olympics, I became a better hockey player, and I became a better person.”

To make sure the players hear LaFontaine’s message, AHAUS officials brought him to the Festival this year as an assistant coach for the North team.

The players have been encouraged to decide their immediate futures as soon as possible. Association officials will cut the team to between 27 and 35 players following the final game tonight at the Greensboro Coliseum, and do not want to take anyone to the training camp next month in Lake Placid, N.Y., who is not committed to playing the 66-game exhibition schedule leading to the Winter Olympics Feb. 13-28 at Calgary, Canada. The team will be cut to 23 before the Opening Ceremony.

In presenting the association’s case, Art Berglund, its international activities director, has taken two approaches.

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There is the sentimental approach.

“We won the silver in ’52 and ’56, the gold in ’60 and ’80 and played for the bronze in ’76,” he said. “We’ve got a strong Olympic tradition built up. Kids dream of being Olympic hockey players in our country.”

There is the practical approach.

“We tell the guys they don’t want to go to Springfield or New Haven or Maine or any of those other minor league hockey teams,” he said. “The minor leagues aren’t developmental leagues like they should be. By playing for us, they can develop and go straight into the NHL after the Olympics.”

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LaFontaine, 21, would not have to say a word to be effective in making the association’s point. His example speaks volumes. But he also has been an enthusiastic spokesman.

“Playing for the Olympic team was my greatest experience in hockey,” he said after a workout one day last week.

“I went all over the world--Finland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia--learned different customs and heard different languages, and I was only 18 years old. I also played against the best competition in the world and had a chance to represent my country.

“The NHL is always going to be there, but there are only so many chances to play in the Olympics. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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The player who has AHAUS officials the most anxious is Brian Leetch, a defenseman from Boston College who was the New York Rangers’ first-round draft choice, the ninth overall, in 1986. He injured his knee during the first game here for the North team last week, but it is not believed to be serious. There is no chance he will not be selected for the training camp unless he tells association officials he prefers to play for the Rangers.

Bob Johnson, former coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames and AHAUS’ new executive director, said he has spoken to Ranger General Manager Phil Esposito, telling him Leetch will be a more valuable player if he has the Olympic experience.

“If I were an NHL general manager, I’d want my kids right here,” Johnson said.

Leetch, however, said the Rangers have continued to pressure him.

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“They say they understand, but they still want me to come,” Leetch said. “They say I can play for the Olympic team when the time comes, but I can’t do that.”

Leetch, 19, apparently has decided in favor of the Olympic team.

“I’m not even thinking about the Rangers until after the Olympics,” he said. “I want to stay with this team.

“It helped make up my mind when I saw what happened to Lawton. He struggled when he first went to the NHL. I talked to Paddy (LaFontaine), and he told me what a great experience he had with the Olympic team and that it helped him develop more as a hockey player than if he’d gone straight to the Islanders.

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“If I play well during the Olympics, maybe my value will go up.”

Then again, his injury last week has made him wonder whether he will have any value at all if he becomes the victim of a more serious physical problem before the Olympics and is unable to play in the NHL.

“I might like to get the contract out of the way so that I don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “I’d like to get it behind me.”

Even though that was not an uncommon practice for American players in the past, it was illegal under International Olympic Committee rules until this year. But ice hockey competition now is open to all players, even those in the NHL.

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The association plans to bring at least two NHL players to the training camp, which begins Aug. 7. New Jersey goalkeeper Chris Terreri and Washington defenseman Steve Leach have received permission from their teams to play in the Olympics. The association also is negotiating with Montreal for another player, defenseman Scott Sandelin. All played for U.S. national teams at one level or another before entering the NHL.

But those are marginal players whose teams believe they may benefit more by playing regularly with the Olympic team than by shuttling back and forth between the NHL and the minor leagues.

U.S. Olympic Coach Dave Peterson, 56, a retired high school teacher and coach from Minneapolis who was an assistant to Lou Vairo for the 1984 Olympic team, said no NHL team has offered AHAUS the use of established American players, such as Tom Barrasso, Neal Broten, Jimmy Carson, Chris Chelios or John VanBiesbrouck.

Even if they did, Peterson said he would not use them unless they could commit to the Olympic team for the next seven months.

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“If those guys came in the week before the Olympics and said they wanted to play, we couldn’t allow that,” Peterson said. “It wouldn’t be fair to tell players who have been through training camp and the exhibition schedule with us that they don’t have a place on the team in the Olympics.

“I want 23 players who want to be in the Olympics. If they have interests somewhere else, I don’t want them there.”

But he said there is another, more philosophical, reason he does not want established NHL players on his team.

“If Herb Brooks had all pros and no amateurs when the United States beat the Russians in 1980, I don’t think it would have had the same impact,” he said. “The team wouldn’t have gotten the same response. It wouldn’t have been America’s team.”

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