— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) June 25, 2016
“That first year in Janesville for me was a catalyst. I had a great year with great people, between coach Joe Dibble, coach Cody Campbell, my goalie coach Larry Clemens, those were unbelievable people to work with,” said LaFontaine in a phone interview. “The Jets gave me a great opportunity to pursue doing what I loved and to try and become a hockey player. The environment in Janesville was so positive; the coaches respected me as a hockey player and did everything they could to help me develop. I’m thankful that I was able to start my junior hockey career in Janesville.”
LaFontaine was the Jets’ first-ever draft pick in the NHL, going in the third round and 75th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes after just one year of junior hockey in 2015-16. “Laffer” boasted 24 wins that season and was a member of the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, an event that presents an opportunity for players to get great recognition, and for some, is the first step to transitioning to a higher level of hockey.
“That’s a weekend that a lot of players have circled on their calendars and really want to be a part of. You know the significance of the event, it’s towards the back end of the season, and it provides a chance to showcase your talent and get some good looks,” said LaFontaine. “That was a great moment for me, and it helped me move forward with the Jets and as a hockey player.”
After getting drafted by the Canes, LaFontaine went to play at the University of Michigan, which he committed to in December of 2015. In his first year as a Wolverine in 2016, he played 11 games and had a .911 save percentage. The following season would be his last at Michigan after appearing in 11 contests and posting a 4-4 record.
Laffer made his way back to home soil in Canada and played for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League in the 2018-19 year. His only year in the BCHL was crucial in his journey to the show, as he, again like he had his whole career, recorded top-tier statistics. A .923 save percentage paired with a 2.19 goals against average in 45 games propelled the Vees into the playoffs, where LaFontaine continued to roll. Jack posted an impressive 2.02 GAA in six postseason games. Once LaFontaine finished his time in Penticton, he transitioned to collegiate hockey again and transferred to the University of Minnesota to play with the Golden Gophers.
“A lot went into my collegiate career; I had a lot of fortunate situations where I was able to flourish as an individual and as a goalie, and that all stems from Janesville, learning how to be a professional and how to conduct myself,” said LaFontaine. “There were some highs and some lows, which is expected, but always in the middle of it, I’ve had a great base because of my time in Janesville.”
The first year as a Gopher for the former Jet opened the door to what would become a memorable career in Minnesota. Following his inaugural season in Minny, LaFontaine was named an assistant captain in the 2020-21 season and had the NCAA’s second-best save percentage (.934) and fifth-best GAA (1.79). To top it all off, he earned the Mike Richter Award, an honor bestowed to the best goaltender in Division I men’s hockey. Thanks to his big senior year that saw him record five shutouts and league-best numbers, LaFontaine earned a spot as a captain for this 2021 year. Twenty starts in maroon and gold later, LaFontaine has earned his call up to the NHL.
The ownership and management group was slightly different six years ago when the Hurricanes selected LaFontaine. Rod Brind’Amour, the current head coach of the Canes, was an assistant coach in 2016, but the head coach at the time, Bill Peters, and General Manager Ron Francis, have since left to carry duties with other franchises. The staff has seen a plethora of transitions and changes, which sometimes results in backtracking on previous draft picks and acquisitions. Still, the Hurricanes are steadfast on having LaFontaine as a goaltender.
“Management has changed, but the people they bring in are still great for the team. Like anywhere, you have to prove yourself as a hockey player, and I feel I’ve done that,” said LaFontaine. “I know that the team looks much different than it did six years ago, both in the front office and on the ice, but I’ve kept that line of communication open, and they’ve been extremely helpful throughout this entire process. Faces may have changed, but the integrity and core values of the organization have been upheld.”
“The biggest thing you noticed about Jack was how professional he was,” said former head coach and current General Manager of the Jets, Joe Dibble. “He had high expectations for himself on the ice and off it, in the gym, in the classroom. He was a dedicated guy.”
LaFontaine was only 17 years old when he started in Janesville and had the task of balancing online classes, workouts, practices, community appearances, and of course, hockey games. His ability to adapt to a lifestyle as complicated and demanding, all while maintaining a positive attitude, is one of many things that stuck out during Jack’s time in Janesville.
“You realized real quick that he’s a first-class human being,” said Dibble. “He’s very humble, and from the minute that Jack walked in, the first thing I noticed was how professional he carried himself and how much his teammates meant to him every day.
Asked if there was a specific moment or point in the season that he knew that LaFontaine would be a special player, Dibble immediately alluded to one game in the 2015 campaign.
“We were in Cloquet playing the Wilderness, there were a dozen Division I scouts and a few NHL scouts, and two or three players on the NHL Central Scouting List and plenty of DI prospects. Jack stopped three breakaways, and we ended up winning 4-2. It was back-and-forth, we had to weather the storm after a rough opening period, and Jack’s athleticism really showed. It was a turning point in the season,” said Dibble. “Jack came into the locker room after the first period and told the guys, “that period’s on me, it’s not gonna happen the rest of the game, I’m gonna shut the door.” And that’s what he did.”
While his gameplay was certainly something to behold in Janesville, it’s what LaFontaine continuously did off the ice, and the mentality he always had that formed him into the man and goaltender he is today.
“Week after week, his practice habits stood out. How he competed at practice, how he was at community appearances, the demand he had with online school through Canada. His work ethic was incredible,” said Dibble. “He always felt that he had more to give, always wanted to improve and get better, was never satisfied with his success, and for a kid as young as he was, that was impressive. That’s hard to find in someone that’s only a senior in high school, and I’m sure that’s still how he carries himself to this day.”
“I’m extremely proud and happy for Jack and his family,” said Dibble. “I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to coach him for a year here in Janesville. I was in the right place at the right time, but I know the bond he’s built with teammates over the years and how he’s interacted with players and staff has gotten him to where he is. We’re very proud of him and excited to see what’s next.”
LaFontaine made the trip to Raleigh earlier this week to prepare for his potential debut in the NHL this weekend. While the Hurricanes confirmed their starter tonight will not be Jack, that still leaves the door open for Saturday night. Six years is a long time between lacing up the skates for a small-town junior hockey team in Southern Wisconsin and signing an NHL contract, but Jack’s time as a Jet kickstarted what has now become a monumental journey.
“Janesville taught me so much and helped shape me into who I am today. Of course, in the hockey sense, they developed me, but as a professional, as a human being, treating people with respect… you want good people in the locker room and on your hockey team, and Janesville is where I picked up those skills and developed them,” said LaFontaine. “When you take hockey out of the equation, it’s about being a good person and treating others with respect, and I hope that the Jets and the city of Janesville appreciate Jack LaFontaine the human being.”
The Hurricanes have two games from PNC Arena in the next three days, starting with a Metropolitan Division matchup against the Colombus Blue Jackets tonight, followed by a game Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks. Stay tuned to our social channels to stay updated on LaFontaine and his status this week with the Canes.