By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Lumberjacks’ decision to fire coach Todd Krygier was apparently made in the past few days, due to “philosophical differences” between Krygier and team owner Dan Israel, according to a team source.
Meanwhile, the team’s new coach – Michigan native John LaFontaine – comes with celebrity connections. He’s the older brother of retired NHL star Pat LaFontaine, who scored 468 goals in 15 seasons with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.
The Lumberjacks surprised the local hockey community on Wednesday morning by announcing that Krygier had been terminated on Tuesday after three seasons as head coach.
“It kind of came on quicker than I expected from our ownership standpoint,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, general manager and director of hockey operations for the Lumberjacks. “There was no incident. It was the result of a longer period of discussions between Dan (Israel) and Todd and philosophical differences.”
The timing of the move was awkward, since the team recently completed its preseason player roster and is set to begin training camp Aug. 28. The first game of the regular season will be Sept. 30.
“The timing isn’t great, but we still have plenty of time,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We submitted rosters on July 10, so we have the foundation of our team. That’s all in place, so we’re kind of over that hurdle.”
Krygier, a former National Hockey League player who took over the Lumberjacks in 2013-14 after coaching at Novi High School, had his most successful season in 2014-15, when he led Muskegon to a berth in the United States Hockey League Clark Cup finals.
He had an overall record of 92-72-16 with the Lumberjacks.
Krygier told LocalSportsJournal.com on Wednesday that the coaching change took him by surprise, and he’s yet to formulate any plans for the coming season.
“It just happened unexpectedly yesterday, so I don’t know what my next move will be,” said Krygier, who expressed gratitude to Vanbiesbrouck, as well as the team’s past and current ownership, for the chance to work in Muskegon.
“I really enjoyed my time in Muskegon,” he added. “I had the privilege of coaching not only excellent hockey players, but good people, and working with a great staff. I’m grateful to the guys for their work ethic and dedication they gave every day, and their commitment to the team.”
LaFontaine, a native of Pontiac, has been coaching the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League for the past two seasons. Last season the Wildcats advanced to the league championship series before losing. The NAHL is a junior hockey development league, a tier below the United States Hockey League, which the Lumberjacks compete in.
LaFontaine has a long coaching resume.
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.
LaFontaine will inherit a Lumberjacks squad that’s expected to be highly competitive after posting a disappointing 27-26-3 record and seventh place finish in the USHL’s nine-team Eastern Conference last season.
The Lumberjacks are expecting a dozen players to return from last year’s squad, including league scoring champion Rem Pitlick, high-scoring forward Collin Adams, standout defenseman Bo Hanson and last year’s backup goalie, Devin Cooley.
“We have a solid nucleus that can really produce,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We’re really excited about it.”
Former Muskegon pro hockey star Todd Robinson, an assistant coach under Krygier for the past two seasons, will remain in his current position, according to Vanbiesbrouck.