Lumberjacks fire coach John LaFontaine following two seasons on the bench

By Steve Gunn
LocalSportsJournal.com

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks have fired head coach John LaFontaine following two winning seasons.

The team announced the move in a press release Monday morning.

John LaFontaine

LaFontaine was hired in the summer of 2016 to replace former Lumberjacks coach Todd Krygier. He led the Jacks to back-to-back winning seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The team made the USHL playoffs in two consecutive seasons for the first time under LaFontaine’s leadership.

His two-season regular-season record was 70-43-7. His 2016-17 team had a mark of 37-18-5 and set a franchise record for single-season victories and points in the standings.

The 2017-18 Lumberjacks finished in third place in the nine-team USHL Eastern Conference with a 33-25-2 record.

Last week the Lumberjacks were eliminated in the first round of the Clark Cup playoffs by the Chicago Steel. The Jacks were also knocked out of the first round of the playoffs in LaFontaine’s first season.

Lumberjacks General Manager John Vanbiesbrouck told LocalSportsJournal.com that the team is already considering possible replacements, but has not contacted any candidates yet.

He said a new coach will probably be named “sooner rather than later.”

Vanbiesbrouck said the decision to fire LaFontaine was strictly “hockey-based,” and not at all personal. He said it was based on certain team performance aspects, as well as unspecified philosophical differences with the coach.

Vanbiesbrouck didn’t deny that two straight years of first-round playoff exits had a role in the decision, but said it was more than that.

“I think everything was a part of it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “You can look at our goals against average, which was at the bottom of the league, our penalty killing, what happened when we had leads, things of that nature.

“John is a great person. He was great with the players, fans and the community. On the whole we just decided to make a change to give our team a different direction.”

Vanbiesbrouck said he would understand if fans are a bit startled by the move, considering LaFontaine’s overall success in his two seasons in Muskegon.

“From that perspective, there really isn’t an answer,” he said. “But we look at the total body of work, the games, the players we’ve had, our abilities, and don’t just focus on whether someone turns something around or not. There’s a lot to it. Our goal is not to upset fans. Our goal is to win a championship. That’s our goal every year and we’re very serious about it.”

LaFontaine said he learned late last week that his contract was not going to be renewed.

He said he suspected that the move might be coming, since he was in the second and final year of his contract and had not been approached about an extension.

“I had not been offered a contract, so you wonder if something might be up,” said LaFontaine, the brother of former National Hockey League great Pat LaFontaine. “You know there’s a chance getting near the end of the year.

“Obviously I am disappointed, but I also know, in this profession, you need to produce in the playoffs. We didn’t do that the last two years. I didn’t get the job done in the playoffs.”

LaFontaine, who came to Muskegon after coaching the Wichita Falls, Texas team in the North American Hockey League, expressed his respect for the Lumberjacks organization, including Vanbiesbrouck and owner Dan Israel.

“I though we all worked good together,” he said. “I really respect Dan and John. They’ve always been upfront and honest with me. I respect them to the utmost. I respect the fact that they want to go in a different direction.”

LaFontaine said he’s already had discussions with other teams about possible jobs, but declined to say what teams, or whether they are in the USHL.

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