Jack LaFontaine got his start in hockey later than most kids, and it wasn’t even on ice.
“I was around six or seven years old and at a birthday party,” LaFontaine recalled. “We were playing road hockey and nobody wanted to be the goalie. I strapped on the pads and absolutely loved it. After that I pleaded my parents to play and it took off from there.”
Sometimes parents are concerned with their kids playing in net as opposed to forward or defence, for a multitude of reasons, but LaFontaine’s father was a goaltender and helped his son prepare for life in the crease.
“He warned me before hand that it’s a tough position and you’ll face a lot of criticism,” LaFontaine said. “But as a seven year old you aren’t thinking about that, you just want to play. They were fully supportive of me, they always tell me during games they get more nervous than me. It always makes me laugh because I feel like they’re right there in the crease with me.”
Growing up in Ontario, the Ontario Hockey League is a big draw for a large portion of young hockey players. While LaFontaine had an opportunity there, being drafted 42nd overall by the Kitchener Rangers in 2014, he made a mature decision at a young age on which route in hockey was the right one for him.
“I think it was around grade 10 or 11 where I wanted to nail down the route I had to take in order to become an NHL player,” LaFontaine explained. “It just made more sense for me to go NCAA. I knew I was a late bloomer and I wanted my degree. School is massive for me. As a goalie it sometimes takes a little longer to develop.”
Following the draft out of midget, LaFontaine made the jump to junior hockey with the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Junior Hockey League posting an impressive 20-6-0 record with a 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage. He then played in eight playoff games as the Raiders reached the league final, but ultimately fell to the Trenton Golden Hawks in five games.
The following year, LaFontaine went south of the border and joined the Janesville Jets of the North American Hockey League. It was a big change compared to his experience in Georgetown.
“They were polar opposites in my opinion,” he said. “In Georgetown I was still living at home, I was still going to my same high school. The farthest road trips we made were like three hours away. But Janesville was a huge awakening for me. Living away from home, going to a different country, road trips were 10 or 12 hours. It was much more focused on the NCAA route.”
With the Jets, LaFontaine’s workload increased substantially as he appeared in 41 games going 24-8-7 with a 2.16 GAA and .921 save percentage to go along with four shutouts. His performances over his first two years of junior hockey made him a player to watch heading into the 2016 NHL Draft, though LaFontaine says it was easy for him to let it roll off his back.
“I wouldn’t say there was too much of a spotlight on me,” he said. “I was never seen as one of the top guys, and we had a really good team which I think was a blessing in disguise because the microscope wasn’t on me the whole time. I wasn’t doing interviews on TSN or anything like that throughout the year so I didn’t have to worry about it too much.”
When draft day came, LaFontaine was in Buffalo, New York to hear his name called by the Carolina Hurricanes with the 75th overall pick. While it was a very special moment for LaFontaine and his family, he knew being drafted didn’t guarantee anything about the future.
“It’s one day out of my entire career where you’re able to reflect on all the things you’ve sacrificed and have accomplished with the people you love,” LaFontaine recalled. “A lot of kids are drafted but it’s one footstep in the right direction. It let me know that everything I had done was for something and a huge motivating factor.”
After two years at the University of Michigan in which he appeared in 22 games, LaFontaine had to make the difficult decision on whether to stay with the Wolverines for his junior season or return to junior hockey for his final year of eligibility before returning to Michigan. While he eventually decided on leaving the school, he stressed that it wasn’t due to frustration with the program.
“I love Michigan. I bleed blue,” he stated. “It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. It was discussed a lot with the coaching staff and my family, but going back to the reason I decided to play college hockey, it’s a process. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I think this extra year is going to help me out down the road. The plan is to eventually return to Michigan and prove that I’m worthy of being a Wolverine.”
After making the decision to leave school, LaFontaine then had to decide where he wanted to play one year of junior hockey. After the Vees acquired his CJHL rights from the Raiders, an old friend helped convince him it was the perfect place for him to go.
“I did my research and Mat Robson, who I grew up with, had nothing but good things to say about the place,” he said. “I’m a big believer in if you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen. After speaking with coach Harbinson I got a good vibe from him and felt like he and the rest of the staff were good people which was something I gravitated towards.”
LaFontaine knows his time in Penticton is limited to just one year, which makes his goal for this year an easy one.
“Just win,” he stated. “Stats are nice and icing on the cake, but just winning is the number one job for a goalie. I’m the last line of defence and I want to lead this team to some victories.”
Vees fans may not have to wait long to see the victories come once LaFontaine and the rest of his teammates arrive in late August.