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LaFontaine leads from the heart for NAHL-leading Wildcats

December 14, 2015

Wichita Falls Wildcats head coach John LaFontaine has his team atop the NAHL, but coaching is a lot more than wins for the veteran bench boss (photos by Cody Wooten).

By Sarah Johnson, Wichita Falls Times Record News

The heart of a coach is often hidden under layers of tough exterior, or behind the constant shriek of a whistle. For John LaFontaine, coach of the NAHL's Wichita Falls Wildcats, his heart is right there on his sleeve for everyone to see.
"Getting touchy, feely with relationships wasn't me," he said. "I grew up in the factories. My dad was a Type A personality — a real tough guy."
But sometimes God has to hit you over the head to change your ways.
"When I was coaching in Bozeman in the NAHL, we lost in the playoffs and I remember everyone was crying," LaFontaine said. "One of my players came up to me and said 'I know you really care about me coach. I was your captain and you took time with me. But the rest of the players? I'm not so sure they know you care about them.'"
"He was so right."
LaFontaine's heart belongs to God and it's what drives him as he leads 23 young men in his second year of coaching the junior ice hockey team.
"Yelling, barking and blowing the whistle don't do anything," he said. "We have a young team this year — ranging in age from 17 to 20 years old. The important part is to try and make a difference for these young men. We want to help them navigate and have some direction in their life to be better men, friends, co-workers and husbands and fathers down the road."
So LaFontaine decided to make coaching more of a ministry and to concentrate on learning how to serve and care for players on a deeper level. One way to impart the importance of his faith was to offer a team Bible study, led by Craig Lile of Faith Baptist Church. LaFontaine does not attend, letting his players gather once a week to share openly among themselves.
"They're averaging 12 to 14 players every week," LaFontaine said. "That's half of the team. Right now they're studying Rick Warren's book 'Purpose Driven Life.' We started the year with three or four kids who were already strong in their faith and the rest have come along. Even the ones who don't go, I'll overhear them talking about it, asking the other players how it went and how they should've been there. It's exciting to see how God is working in their lives."
LaFontaine admits hockey is unlike other sports like football, where it's commonplace to see players kneeling in the end zone to pray. But that's not to say an ice rink can't be a place where faith is front and center.
In the hockey world, LaFontaine said, the culture of the team is based on ownership and the owners' values. A Christian coach may be viewed as too "soft" and may not get hired. That's why it's special for LaFontaine to have Roy Devoult as a part owner of the Wildcats.
"His values are Christian based and he welcomes any show of faith with open arms," he said. "He says 'You guys want to pray before the game? Go right ahead.'"
Devoult said he's learned a lot after 10 years of owning a sports franchise.
"It's a tough business," he said. "John has been an inspiration for me, these players and this town. He makes people better. He created a good group of young men with hope and a desire to compete. More teams need a John LaFontaine."
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