Photo Credit: Jack Murray
Jack LaFontaine never had thoughts about returning to the junior ranks. After a year in the OJHL and a year in the NAHL, followed by being a third-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes, LaFontaine split the goaltending duties at the University of Michigan during the 2016-17 and 17-18 seasons. It wasn’t until a meeting with the coaching staff LaFontaine realized he wouldn’t be returning in the fall of 2018.
“After we lost in the Frozen Four I went into the coaches office thinking everything was all fine and rosy, and they told me they didn’t think I was going to play very much the following year,” LaFontaine recalled. “They still wanted me to be a Wolverine but they wanted me to play well enough to have my spot on the team for 2019-20.”
Initially taken aback by the conversation, LaFontaine quickly realized it would be an excellent opportunity for him to get back into a groove of playing multiple games a week like he had during his previous junior days.
“It broke my heart having to leave because I had so many friends there that I still talk to today,” he said. “Having a chance to play 45 games again, I was all for that. It was definitely the right call for me.”
Being born and raised in Ontario, LaFontaine had never been to Western Canada before coming to the Vees. Unsurprisingly, the Vees weren’t the only team hoping for LaFontaine’s services as a 20 year old, as he said there were teams in the USHL that were hoping to land him too.
It was the history and the culture surrounding the program that drew him to spending his 20-year-old season in the South Okanagan, though it didn’t exactly get off to a smooth start.
“I remember seeing clouds of smoke when I first got there and I was a little shocked by that,” he said with a laugh. “I also didn’t have my clothes for three weeks because my luggage got lost on the way. But then when I stepped out of the rink I remember seeing mountains, and I thought ‘All right, this isn’t going to be that bad of a year.’”
He cites going to the beaches in Penticton following practices as some of the best times he had during his time in town, creating bonds and friendships that will last a lifetime.
On the ice, LaFontaine’s success came a little slower than he would have liked. Five goals on 16 shots against the Langley Rivermen wasn’t how LaFontaine envisioned his season starting. The team finally won back-to-back games in their first two home games, shutting out the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Vernon Vipers, though they wouldn’t win two straight for another month.
“It was always a process,” LaFontaine said. “It was never a Cinderella Story. I tip my cap to Fred because there were some games where if I was the coach I would have been losing my mind. He stuck with me through thick and thin and at the end of the day it’s all about confidence and believing in yourself. I think everyone learned something about themselves last year. I grew as a person, I grew as a goalie and it was a tremendous year for that.”
LaFontaine would, of course, get into a groove as the season went on, culminating with being named the BCHL’s Top Goaltender for the 2018-19 season. He posted a 30-10-2-1 record, .923 save percentage and 2.19 goals against average to take home the honour. He never gave up more than three goals in a game after December 8 and shutout the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the final game of the season to clinch the Interior Division and the 500thwin for Fred Harbinson.
Not everything was sunshine and rainbows for LaFontaine during the season, however. In December he received a phone call from Michigan telling him that he wasn’t in their plans moving forward and would have to find a new landing spot to continue his hockey and education.
“To be honest it broke my heart. It was like going through a breakup. I was in love with that team and that campus, it was kind of like home for me,” LaFontaine admitted. “But I was motivated to get back on the horse and prove them wrong in a way.”
Considering the year he was having with the Vees, and the pedigree of being a high NHL draft pick, there were no shortage of teams clamoring for his services for the fall of 2019. While he visited a few different schools and had plenty of options, it was the University of Minnesota that just felt like the perfect fit.
“I can’t really describe it. I just remember being in Minnesota and it just felt right,” LaFontaine recalled. “It was just the place I wanted to be and spend the next two years of my college career. On top of that, I get to play Michigan four times next year, so I’m a happy camper.”
His commitment to Minnesota may seem like it was meant to be, considering he has taken a nearly identical path to a good friend of his, and former Vees goaltender, Mat Robson.
After red shirting at Clarkson University in 2015-16, Robson returned to the junior ranks in Penticton and helped lead them to a Fred Page Cup in 2017. He then committed to the University of Minnesota, becoming the first Canadian goalie to play there since Frank Pietrangelo in 1985-86.
With Robson signing an NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild, the path has been paved for LaFontaine to take the reigns as the Gophers starting goaltender.
“I feel like I’m playing copy cat with him,” LaFontaine laughed. “He’s kind of paved the way for a bunch of kids from Mississauga who grew up playing street hockey, not knowing what they wanted to do. He’s had a cool journey. I spent some time at home recently and everyone is so excited for him.”
With his NCAA future now cemented in Minnesota, LaFontaine was able to focus on having fun again with the Penticton Vees. Coming off an eighth-straight Division title, the Vees were clear favourites for their opening round series against the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
The Capitals, to their credit, did not back down and ousted the Vees in six games sending shockwaves through the junior hockey world.
“It’s been a month and you kind of have time to decompress and ask yourself what happened,” LaFontaine said. “I still have nightmares sometimes laying in bed and thinking to myself ‘what the hell happened?’ But that’s hockey. That’s why you have to play the first round. I have to give props to their goalie Pierce Diamond, he played unreal in that series. It stung. It stung quite a bit because you want to bring some hardware back to the fans in Penticton. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and unfortunately for guys like me, we don’t have an opportunity to go back and try to make things right.”
While the ending to the season might be tough to shake off, the memories created during his time in Penticton will outweigh the frustrating ending for LaFontaine.
“I still talk to the guys every day. You build these friendships that last lifetime,” LaFontaine reminisced. “It’s tough, you spend every day with them for eight months and then you pack up your stuff and never see them again. I was fortunate enough to build some really good relationships with the entire coaching staff. You don’t see guys lining up to go to play for other teams in that division, everyone lines up to go to Penticton. To be able to put on that jersey is something I’ll always cherish for the rest of my life.”
LaFontaine’s summer plans revolve around taking some time off and heading to development camp with the Hurricanes before he starts the next chapter of his life in Minnesota.
He’s followed in the footsteps of Robson to Penticton and Minnesota, and nobody in Penticton would be surprised to see him also sign an NHL contract a few years down the road.