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Iron Sabre

Ex-star LaFontaine going the distance for sick kids

Posted: Wednesday November 1, 2006 5:25PM; Updated: Sunday November 12, 2006 7:07PM
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LaFontaine's six seasons in Buffalo included a 53-goal, 148-point campaign in 1992-93.
LaFontaine's six seasons in Buffalo included a 53-goal, 148-point campaign in 1992-93.
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Eight years after he retired from the NHL, Pat LaFontaine is still a complete player: swimming, cycling, running, caring. He will be in Panama City, Florida on Saturday to compete in an Ironman Triathlon event. Never mind slashes, hooks, cross-checks and people named Volek trying to finish your pinpoint passes. LaFontaine will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles with a goal time of 12 hours 20 minutes.

The sweat and blisters are for the organization that he started six years ago -- Companions in Courage -- and for the cause that spawned it since 1993. That year, while LaFontaine was playing for the Sabres, he was undergoing rehab for a reconstructed knee when he met Robert Schwegler, a 12-year-old bone marrow transplant patient who was in a hospital isolation room in Buffalo.

To pass the time, Robert and his idol regularly played video hockey, with Robert assuming the role of LaFontaine and his ex-Sabres teammate Alexander Mogilny. One day, a nurse began to thank LaFontaine for his time and suddenly broke down.

"You don't understand, I'm here all the time," she told him. "This is the only time he smiles." Schwegler passed away six months later and LaFontaine began to donate his time and money to helping patients like him.

As a Sabre, LaFontaine often rented luxury boxes for patients who were well enough to watch Buffalo's home games. He envisioned a chance to become more involved after his retirement from hockey, just as he fancied completing a triathlon around the time of his 40th birthday. He began Companions in Courage in 2000 and in the last three years has devoted time to building Lion's Den rooms -- respites for children with cancer and life-threatening illnesses. To date, the organization has built rooms at the Buffalo Children's Hospital and the Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Westchester, NY with a third one at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City in the works, with hopes for as many as eight rooms in the next three years.

The rooms have four components: Xbox games with headsets to play solo or  against kids in other hospitals; personal computers for patients to send email, play music or do homework; a Windows Media Center with a flat-panel video screen on which they can get, among other things, an exclusive live feed from an aquarium; and a videopod conferencing option that allows them to conference with family, friends and celebrities.

"We wanted the room to be an oasis, a safe haven for kids to escape," LaFontaine says. "They're colorful, cheerful, something that looks as far from a hospital room as possible, a place where a kid can connect to the outside world and just be a kid."

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