This weekend against Minnesota, the Michigan hockey team may see a familiar face in Jack LaFontaine.
The goalie played for the Wolverines from 2016-18 and has always envisioned himself coming back.
After a turmoil-filled sophomore season with Michigan, LaFontaine decided that he needed more consistent playing time to develop into a better player. That, ultimately, would have to be away from the Wolverines. So he signed with the Penticton Vees in British Columbia with a roadmap drawn out to lead him back to Michigan as a better and more attuned goaltender.
But his path back took a turn, and instead, he transferred to Minnesota.
From a highly-touted draftee dominating juniors to struggling in Division I, his career trajectory has taken a long, winding path to Minneapolis.
Junior hockey in Janesville, Wisc.
Mississauga, Ontario is a suburb outside of Toronto. Boasting a population of nearly a million people, the district nurtured a multicultural atmosphere. It hosts the headquarters of major branches of multiple Fortune 500 businesses. It’s also where LaFontaine grew up.
He, by nature, was an urban kid, used to large crowds and bustling streets. So when he moved to Janesville to play for the Janesville Jets, it was an all-round different feel. A city brimming with life was traded for an everyday, dime-a-dozen small town, where everyone knows everyone. While there was a population of 63,000 on paper, it feels like a town of 10. And most of all, Janesville is a place that is hesitant to change.
However, unlike the town, LaFontaine embraced change. He adapted to his new environment and took his game to a top-tier level, and one that caught the eyes of scouts. He recorded a .921 save percentage and 2.16 goals averaged against in 41 games. His athleticism and performance with the Jets and overall talent led to him being picked 75th overall, in the third round of the 2016 NHL draft — a selection many thought of as a reach.
Reach or not, LaFontaine only felt elated. Adam Winborg, the captain of the Jets at the time and then-fellow Michigan commit, called it, “A dream come true for many kids.”
Tenure with the Wolverines
During LaFontaine’s first year at Michigan, he saw limited action. There was a three-goalie rotation, and it was difficult for a freshmen — highly-touted or not — to command major minutes. Michigan coach Mel Pearson, though not there at the time, noted how it was already difficult to balance a two-person battle, let alone three.
But LaFontaine saw time, playing in 11 games, though only starting nine. He accumulated a record of 1-7-1. In those games, he recorded career-highs and marquee moments, like a shootout save to seal a tie against Michigan Tech or making 53 saves in a loss to Penn State.
But even with limited time in the net, he found ways to grow, as both a player and person.
“He’s a spectacular goalie,” said senior forward Jake Slaker. “I think that’s known by everyone, and I think he grew as a different person. Maturity, came in as a younger guy, and he matured as the years went on.”
Senior forward Will Lockwood characterized him as one of the most caring and nicest guys he’s ever met. Having roomed with him freshman year, Lockwood attested to his best friend’s skills between the net.
LaFontaine, despite the backing of his teammates, failed to secure the starting job his sophomore year. He tallied a .899 save percentage and a 3.51 GAA. It was his New Year’s performance against Bowling Green that ultimately sealed his place on the bench. After allowing five goals, he was pulled for an extra skater — though the Wolverines ended up losing 6-4.
“He brought a lot to the table when he was here,” Lockwood said. “And I think it just wasn’t the best fit for him at the time. Certain things didn’t go his way.”
When Michigan named Hayden Lavigne its starting netminder, LaFontaine was mitigated to a smaller role than one that he was hoping for.
So he transferred.
At the time of his benching, Penticton Vees coach Fred Harbinson had heard from the goalies of his program that LaFontaine was considering leaving Ann Arbor. Using his previous college hockey coaching ties, he reached out to LaFontaine and started the process of getting him information on what the Vees had to offer.
Part of the appeal were the amenities the program had to offer to a young player. Backed by an ownership fully committed to the team, the Vees showcased a multi-million dollar mini-pro rink where they take a double sheet, allowing for players to come in multiple times a day to hone their skills.
So he agreed to make the move to Penticton, British Columbia.
For LaFontaine, that meant a place where goaltenders could come in during the morning scheduling and work with shooters, a full-time goalie coach and a strength and conditioning coach.
The investment into his development showed.
LaFontaine had a rocky start to the season, but that was to be expected. He cared about his previous teammates and having to transfer subdued his confidence a little bit — which with goaltending, is essential. But he blossomed behind the unwavering backing of his coaches and the lack of threat of a competing goaltender and notched an accolade-filled season in the British Columbia Hockey League, recording .923 save percentage and 2.19 GAA over 45 games.
“He was leaving school and maybe wondering what was going to be next,” Harbinson said. “And we stuck with him early in the year, and he ended up being one of the best goaltenders in the league, if not the best in the league.”
It was the opportunity he was looking for. No bad game and then get pulled situation. If he played a bad game, Harbinson just let him play through it until he got acclimated.
“We were down last year, and we obviously didn’t go where we wanted to go,” Harbinson said. “If it wasn’t for Jack, it would have been a tough year. He kept us in so many games and gave us a chance to win our interior division tenant during the regular season, and we would have probably been a third or fourth place (team).”
Path to Minnesota
While the plan was to return to Michigan after LaFontaine had returned to form, a problem arose. Strauss Mann, one of Michigan’s goaltenders, started to emerge as a candidate for the starting spot. So when LaFontaine reached out, Pearson had to make a decision. Go with LaFontaine or does he stick with Mann?
“We had to make a decision on Strauss, basically, that’s where it was at,” Pearson said. “And at that point, we just felt that for a lot of reasons probably it’d be good for Jack to get a fresh start somewhere else.”
And it was a mutual feeling. LaFontaine soon found a home at Minnesota, where he is battling for the job between the pipes. Though he’s struggled to integrate into the team initially, he has another chance to prove himself.
While he may have chosen not to come back to Michigan, he still keeps in contact with many of the players he remains tight with. He reaches out and talks to them every week — that is, except one.
“We haven’t actually talked this week,” Slaker said. “So, it’s one of those things where we’re friends off the ice, but this week, I don’t know if we can be friends until after the weekend, just because we’re all competitive.
But the walk into Yost will be a big moment for him.
“I think he’s really excited to come visit some old faces and friends,” Lockwood said. “And you know, play back here in the Yost.”
Added Slaker: “It’s gonna be emotional, I’m sure, for him to come back here.”