For Jason Herter, goalie Jack LaFontaine's brief window of NHL opportunity with Carolina is a familiar story
Last season, Jack LaFontaine got one NHL start to prove himself with the Carolina Hurricanes. After being a top-10 draft pick a generation ago, Jason Herter got one game, just one, to prove himself at the NHL level.
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Much has been made about former Minnesota Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine being pulled from his college team mid-season, then getting what amounted to a 75-minute tryout with the Carolina Hurricanes before the NHL team cut him loose this week.
On the night of Dec. 6, 1995, Jason Herter got less than 60 minutes to prove his worth to the New York Islanders. Herter, a star defenseman at North Dakota who was picked eighth overall in the 1989 NHL Draft, got an assist in his debut in “the show.” The Islanders’ 7-4 loss at Hartford on a Friday night would be his one and only game in the NHL.
Herter is now 51 and just finished his first season as an assistant coach at Western Michigan, playing a role in the best season in Broncos history. He came to Kalamazoo after winning a pair of national championship rings on Scott Sandelin’s Minnesota Duluth staff.
Windows, open and closed
In looking at LaFontaine’s situation, Herter admits much has changed in the nearly three decades since he was playing pro hockey (he played 11 seasons in North America and Europe), but there are things that were true in 1995 that remain true in 2022.
“You have certain windows. And a lot of it is timing. (LaFontaine) left college early to try to find a window to impress someone and it didn’t work out,” Herter told The Rink Live on Wednesday. “When you have a window, someone’s either got to love you, or you’ve got to do something spectacular to have more than one crack.”
Signed by the Hurricanes on Jan. 9, when the Gophers still had three months of hockey to play, LaFontaine didn’t have to wait long to make his NHL debut. Just four days later, LaFontaine was inserted for the final 14:57 of a game in Raleigh, North Carolina, versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. He faced three shots. Two of them were Columbus breakaways that ended up in the net. The Blue Jackets won 6-0. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour – who was Herter’s prep school teammate in Saskatchewan before both migrated to college hockey – sounded apologetic for the results of LaFontaine’s NHL debut.
“I hate that we threw him in for that, but he got his feet wet a little bit,” Brind’Amour said that night.
You love to see it. Jack LaFontaine gets a standing O for his NHL debut. pic.twitter.com/PQhjs86P03— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) January 15, 2022
On Jan. 22, LaFontaine got his first – and what would be his only – start with the Hurricanes. He faced 38 shots, stopping 31 of them, in a 7-4 loss at New Jersey. He would spend the rest of the season in the minors, going 4-3-7 in 13 appearances with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Chicago, and getting into two ECHL games, with a 1-0-1 record. This week, small sample size and all, the Hurricanes failed to make him a qualifying offer, declaring LaFontaine an unrestricted free agent. His mid-season signing, which came at a time when Carolina’s roster at the NHL and minor league levels was ravaged by injuries and COVID-19, was a dramatic solution to a temporary problem.
For Herter, it is an example of the brief window players are afforded to prove they belong at the top levels of pro sports. He said that a lesson he learned in the 1990s is that even a top-10 draft pick doesn’t get 150 games to “figure it out” and while you are learning and growing, more potential replacements are being added to the mix constantly.
“It all just went by so fast for me,” Herter said. “I was 24 or 25 when I was playing my best hockey, and in those four or five years, that’s four or five more first-, second- and third-round draft picks that get a look. So every year your window gets smaller unless you do something special or someone loves you.”
All is not lost
As Herter sees it, the silver linings for LaFontaine are two-fold. First, he is a goalie, and they generally have longer potential pro careers than defensemen or forwards. As a free agent, he is free to sign anywhere, and goalies are seemingly always in demand. The second thing LaFontaine has going for him is the U of M degree he collected on a stage inside 3M Arena at Mariucci in the spring of 2021.
“Goalies can play longer, so time is on their side before they start to play,” Herter said. “And having grown up in Canada myself, I know that just playing college hockey is a huge step forward for him.”
Still, Herter notes that with the Gophers, LaFontaine was in a great spot, developing, winning, getting lots of playing time. Carolina’s rush to get him into their system caused the goalie to miss out on a Big Ten title and a Frozen Four trip. And with the Hurricanes, he quickly became a discarded asset.
It is a stark reminder of how pro hockey worked in 1995 and how it still works in 2022. The window doesn’t open very wide, and can close very quickly.
“Someone that matters has to pull for you, and when you get your chance, you have to be great, or at least show potential to be great,” Herter said. “Going up there and being average – there’s a lot of people that can do that. If a guy goes up there and plays OK, well, a few months later there’s a whole new class of draft picks and free agents and all kinds of stuff trying to get the same spots.”
On July 8 – six months to the day after LaFontaine’s final game with the Gophers – the Hurricanes used a sixth-round draft pick on Jakub Vondras, an 18-year-old goalie prospect from Czechia.