One of the nicest gifts hockey fans are getting this Christmas is the return of Buffalo Sabres center Pat LaFontaine to his former self.
Perhaps his story isn't as headline-grabbing as that of Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux, who has come back from cancer and back problems to lead the NHL in scoring, but for anyone who has met LaFontaine or watched him play, it is as compelling.
LaFontaine is one of the NHL's truly nice guys.
The last time he was playing this well was in 1992-93, when he produced 148 points and challenged Lemieux for the NHL scoring title. Then came a major knee injury, surgery and 16 months of rehab.
He started coming back last season, playing in 22 of the 48 games in a lockout-shortened season. In 28 games this season, he leads his team in scoring with 13 goals, 22 assists. His 62 points in those 50 games works out to the same 1.2 points a game he has scored throughout his 12-year career.
"It's only recently, in the last little while, that I've felt my timing and strength and my confidence return," LaFontaine says. "The knee is fine, but it's just now that all the confidence came back to try all the things I did before."
The Sabres started 5-9-1 in their first 15 games and 11th in the Eastern Conference. But, as LaFontaine has gotten better, so has Buffalo. In its past 17 it is 10-5-2 and it has climbed to sixth in the East. Going into tonight's game against Boston, Buffalo is on a four-game winning streak.
"The biggest thing has been the chemistry, goaltending and the guys wanting to work for one another," said LaFontaine, spreading the credit to Randy Burridge, Gary Galley and Alexander Zhitnik. "It is important that guys like myself and Dominik Hasek come up big, but when we've won it's been from each guy working hard all over the ice."
The Sabres have been outscored 100-97, but they're a game above .500, which only proves LaFontaine may be as good an analyst as he is a player. As for whether he can get back to being one of the NHL's hottest properties:
"All I can do is work very hard," he said. "Who knows if I can get back to that level -- or a better level? Who knows what's out there? Right now, I'm just enjoying the success the team is having. We're surprising a lot of people."
If you can't skate. . . .
After the Washington Capitals were shut out by the New York Rangers on Monday, Rangers goalie Mike Richter had this take on the defensive play of Ulf Samuelsson: "Ulf is really playing solid. There was a play on [Peter] Bondra in the first period where Ulf opened up so I could see the play. Then he pushed Bondra with his stick to make his shot go off goal. Then he punched him in the head. He did everything right."
Said Bondra, Washington's leading goal scorer, who was double-teamed much of the night: "Ulf can't skate very well, so he has to do something. But punch me in the head? Maybe I felt a little breeze go by. Otherwise, I didn't notice."
The NHL features some of the highest ticket prices in pro sports, so should anyone be surprised that attendance isn't growing?
According to league figures, attendance at 288 games this season has been 4.5 million -- basically the same as it was in 1993-94, which was the last time the NHL played an uninterrupted schedule.
Edmonton, Hartford, Ottawa, the Florida Panthers and the Capitals are below their 1993-94 numbers.
"I'm one voice in the wilderness that thinks we overpay the players," said Edmonton president Glen Sather, adding fans can neither relate to the salary figures nor to the cost of tickets.
In Washington, the Capitals' average over their first 15 home games is down by 1,119 from the 1993-94 average of 14,293. Tonight, the Caps are offering "Furlough Friday!", a 50 percent discount off their $35 and $28 tickets to all federal employees with photo IDs who walk up for tickets.
Teams playing to near-capacity crowds: Anaheim, Boston, Colorado, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose and Toronto.
Christmas appears to be year-round in the NHL as salaries continue to climb. Six years ago only the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky and Pittsburgh's Lemieux made more than $1 million a season. Now, there are 147 NHL millionaires.
The Top 10: Gretzky ($6,545,363); Winnipeg's Keith Tkachuk and the New York Rangers' Mark Messier ($6 million); Lemieux ($4,571,429); Vancouver's Pavel Bure ($4.5 million); LaFontaine ($4.3 million); Philadelphia's Eric Lindros ($4,182,000); Detroit's Sergei Fedorov ($4,162,333); St. Louis' Brett Hull ($3.75 million) and Colorado's Patrick Roy ($2.94 million).
NHL salary facts, according to the survey by the NHL Players Association:
Number of players: 717
Highest paid: Wayne Gretzky, Los Angeles, $6.5 million
Lowest paid: Jim Sandlak, Vancouver, $125,000
Highest-paid forward: Gretzky
Highest-paid defenseman: Paul Coffey, Detroit, $3.6 million
Highest-paid goalie: Patrick Roy, Colorado, $2.9 million
Highest-paid rookie: Washington defenseman Brendan Witt anFlorida defenseman Ed Jovanovski ($1.8 million each)
Team with fewest millionaires: Florida, two -- goalie JohVanbiesbrouck ($2,185,000) and rookie defenseman Jovanovski ($1.5 million)