Pat LaFontaine finally broke his silence Sunday, but he refused to elaborate about the events leading to his unexpected departure from the Buffalo Sabres. LaFontaine was hired to bring leadership and peace to the organization but instead, his exit 3½ months later led to another chapter of turmoil for the franchise.
LaFontaine confirmed he would return to his post with the NHL and would return to Buffalo to watch his son, Daniel, play for Canisius College in 2015-16. The Ice Griffs are set to play home games in HarborCenter, the $172 million jewel under construction downtown with Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s money.
LaFontaine would not say whether there were problems within the front office or provide any other insight or details concerning his abrupt exit. The former captain and former president of hockey operations was far more intent on getting a message across to the people of Buffalo.
“Listen, I’m really proud of what was accomplished in a short period of time with the Sabres,” LaFontaine said. “I’m excited to go back to the National Hockey League. Whether I was a player or working there, the fans, the people, the City of Buffalo and the people of Western New York will always be a special place for me and my family.
“I’m looking forward to coming back and watching my son play. He’s committed to 2015-16. He’s playing for the Junior Sabres and Michael Peca right now. I’m excited for him. I’m excited to watch him develop and play. He’s really enjoyed it.”
LaFontaine sounded surprised and guarded but also upbeat when reached Sunday. His silence was inconsistent from his outgoing personality and comfort when speaking to the public. He remained polite and respectful, but he also was uncharacteristically formal for someone who has had ties to the region for more than 20 years.
The only glimpse LaFontaine provided into what might have happened came when he was asked about whether guidelines were in place regarding the Sabres’ chain of command. When he arrived, it was clear LaFontaine would report directly to Pegula, while others in the hockey department would report to LaFontaine.
General Manager Tim Murray told reporters the day after LaFontaine left that other general managers advised him to stay in communication with the owner. It led to speculation about whether Murray inadvertently breached the chain of command. Still, if true, it would amount to a misdemeanor for a first-time offense.
However, there were others within the hierarchy who had close ties to Pegula going back to western Pennsylvania. President Ted Black arrived with adviser Ken Sawyer when Pegula purchased the franchise three years ago. Joe Battista, a former club hockey coach at Penn State, is a longtime friend. Last year, he took a job with the Sabres.
Apparently, a chain of command did exist.
“Those were established, but I really have no other comment. What I said earlier is all I have to say,” LaFontaine said before reiterating his feelings about his work in hockey operations and the people of Buffalo.
For more than a week, there was speculation about whether LaFontaine resigned from his job or was fired by the Sabres. Several sources pointed toward a combination of both, that he wanted to stay but was forced into resigning amid front office infighting.
Black last week claimed there was no discord between LaFontaine and the front office and suggested LaFontaine was simply leaving for another job. Obviously, his relationship with Pegula reached a point of no return. Otherwise, he would still be here, or both sides would easily explain his departure.
LaFontaine's leaving what he viewed as an ideal opportunity to turn around the franchise was a complete departure from statements he made in recent months. He talked about winning a championship in Buffalo. He also had spoken about his son going to Canisius and his wife's preparing to move to Western New York.
Instead, his tenure came to an abrupt end after 109 days. The NHL immediately hired him as vice president of development and community affairs.
LaFontaine wouldn’t even acknowledge whether a confidentiality agreement existed between him and the Sabres, which also had been widely reported. Such an agreement would prohibit him from speaking about his time with the Sabres, how it ended or language that was included his buyout.
The confidentiality agreement is practically irrelevant. LaFontaine does not have a reputation for criticizing people in private and almost no history of doing so in public. He’s more likely to say nothing than say something negative about anyone, particularly his co-workers and employers.
He made it clear numerous times that he would not be pressed into revealing information into his surprise exit. He had almost no reaction when told some fans thought he simply quit. He seemed committed to getting his message to Sabres fans and letting people draw their own conclusions about his departure.
“It’s all I want to say, what I want to comment on,” LaFontaine said. “It speaks for itself, what I said earlier. It’s been said in the paper. You know how I feel about Buffalo and the commitment and how I feel about the city. I think I made that clear. Outside of that, I have no comment to make at this time.”