By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – John LaFontaine had been busy preparing to coach his third season with the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League, just like Todd Krygier was preparing to coach his fourth season in Muskegon.
Then the Lumberjacks decided to fire Krygier this week, and quickly contacted LaFontaine about taking the job.
He had to make a quick decision about whether to stay in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he led the Wildcats to a berth in the NAHL playoff finals last season, or make the quick switch to Muskegon in the United States Hockey League, just weeks before training camp begins.
Lafontaine, a Michigan native, admits that the decision was tough, but the appeal of the Lumberjacks’ job was too good to pass up.
“My decisions are based a little bit differently,” said LaFontaine, 52, who was introduced to the media Thursday morning at L.C. Walker Arena. “My wife and I sit down and ask a higher power, the Good Lord above, to give us help and he usually makes things clear. I sat down with Dan (Lumberjacks owner Dan Israel) and John (General Manger John Vanbiesbrouck) and it became clear. This is a great opportunity. I was very impressed.
“Wichita Falls is a great community. It has the friendliest people, salt of the earth. But the opportunity to come back here was even more intriguing. We’re back in Michigan, we have family here, and this the best junior league in North America. I’m excited.”
LaFontaine comes to Muskegon with a history of winning.
Before Wichita Falls he coached the Bantam (14-and-under) team at Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Minnesota – a hotbed for young hockey talent – for seven seasons. He led that team to a national championship in 2011.
LaFontaine also coached the Bozeman Ice Dogs of the America West Hockey League (which later merged with the NAHL) from 2000-2007. His Bozeman squad won a league title in 2001-02 and a regular season league championship in 2005-06.
He was named the AWHL Coach of the Year in 2000-2001 and the NAHL Coach of the Year in 2005-06 and 2015-16.
Vanbiesbrouck, who has known LaFontaine for years, said the coach’s winning track record and availability were probably why “things transitioned so quickly” this week.
“It was really Dan Israel who had a short list of candidates and initiated more of the contact than I did,” Vanbiesbrouck added. “He’s invested and he does a lot of research, asks a lot of questions and has a lot of friends around the hockey world.
“Now we’re getting a coach who was voted the best coach in the North American Hockey League last year. I didn’t even know that. I just knew that my first call would have been to John.”
On Wednesday Vanbiesbrouck said that the decision to fire Krygier was based on “philosophical differences.” He offered more details on Thursday.
“I think one thing was using (all the players) in a greater way,” he said. “We have 23 roster players and 20 dress for games. We wanted to use all 20 in games more effectively with more shared ice time. (Krygier) played the top guys a ton in order to get them to produce. I think that was one of the philosophical differences.”
Lafontaine said he’s not intimidated by the idea of working for Israel, who has a reputation for being a passionate employer who demands a lot from himself and employees, and is obviously willing to make big changes at any time.
“I couldn’t have been more impressed with Dan Israel,” he said. “He’s up front, says what he says and means it, and follows through.
“I am impressed with his work ethic. Years ago, before I coached, I worked in manufacturing and became somewhat of an early riser. He’s an even earlier riser. But he’s not going to put any more pressure on me than I put on myself.”
LaFontaine said he hasn’t had time to get well versed on the Lumberjacks roster, which will include about a dozen players from last year’s team, including high-scoring forwards Rem Pitlick and Collin Adams.
But he said he loves working with developing players in their pre-college years. The USHL is comprised of junior players generally between the ages of 16-20.
‘It’s a great age,” he said. “Kids are impressionable and need guidance and direction. I’ve always enjoyed trying to help these kids reach their college goals and beyond and help them build self-esteem.”
LaFontaine has never played professional hockey, but spent a lot of time around the best players in the world in the National Hockey League. His brother, Pat LaFontaine, was a star for 15 seasons with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.
He said his famous brother is likely to drop by L.C. Walker Arena a few times this season.
“It was an awesome ride being able to see him play all those years,” said LaFontaine, wbo added that his brother is likely to drop by L.C. Walker Arena this season. “He’s still involved with hockey. He works for the NHL now.”