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Posted: Wednesday November 25, 2009 4:45PM; Updated: Wednesday November 25, 2009 4:45PM
Jim Kelley
Jim Kelley>INSIDE THE NHL

The NHL and its players give back in the true spirit of the season

Story Highlights

Former star Pat LaFontaine's Companions in Courage helps sick kids in hospitals

The NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer program has raised more than $11 million

The NHLPA, 350 players help make playing hockey affordable for kids worldwide

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Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine has devoted his life to making life more bearable for kids in hospitals.

It's Thanksgiving and the fare is turkey, football and a glop of a columns pointing out all the things we have to be thankful for, even if it is a bit of a tough go out there -- and we're not talking about gnawing on grandpa's attempt to deep fry a bird without burning the house down, or that the indigestion-inducing Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions are on the pigskin TV menu.

So there will be no talk here of being grateful that the NHL might someday take a look at reining in head shots, or about that bright young winger who just might save hockey in Phoenix, Florida or an old barn near you. Instead we want to tell you about three parts of the game that don't get a lot of attention, but produce results every bit it as important -- in my mind, even more so -- than a hot goalie, a winger on a scoring streak, or a defenseman with a plus-minus that is jumping off the charts.

We'll start with Pat LaFontaine's Companions in Courage.

You may not have heard of the Hall of Fame center's personal charity. It's been up and running since shortly before he retired in the summer of 1998 and barely more than a handful of people make it go. But LaFontaine, a charismatic star who played his entire career in New York (Islanders, Buffalo Sabres, Rangers) has created a tremendous vehicle for helping young people.

As a player, LaFontaine always made the rounds at local children's hospitals -- not because his employers asked him to, but because he wanted to do it. He felt blessed by his circumstances and saddened by those whose lives had taken a different path. He sat by many a bedside and often held the hand of a child facing illness and even death. He stood by the parents, too, and as his career came to an end, he realized that he needed and wanted to do more.

So LaFontaine founded Companions in Courage, and wrote a book of the same title about athletes overcoming illness and other adversity. He used the book to influence others to help sick kids, and address a need he saw in countless hospitals: the lack of playrooms where even the sickest kids could, for a few moments at least, have fun and maybe forget about their condition for awhile. He called the playrooms "Lions' Dens" and with contributions has built 10 so far, including two in my home town of Buffalo (the cancer institute Roswell Park, and Women's and Children's Hospital). The rooms are bright and filled with computers, games, TVs and interactive connections that allow kids to play with other kids in the hospital or friends who aren't able to come visit them.

"The greatest reward is when I see a child smile," LaFontaine said on a recent trip to Buffalo, "or when I hear a mother say, 'My child was pushing his pain medicine every eight minutes. Now he's been in this room laughing and smiling and hasn't touched it for an hour.' She's crying, and I say to myself, 'Whatever [problems] we have are good problems.'"

If you want to help Pat open a Lion's Den in a hospital near you, Google Companions in Courage Foundation or go to www.cic16.org and sign up. There's a kid with a family who will thank you in ways you could never imagine.

Another favorite of mine -- Hockey Fights Cancer -- has a bit more size behind it but seems to fly under the radar of the hockey press. HFC is the brainchild of young people at NHL headquarters in New York, who thought the league, in conjunction with the NHL Players Association, could do more than just put a product on the ice. HFC is supported by players, NHL franchises, league alumni, the NHL Officials' Association, trainers and equipment managers, corporate marketing partners, broadcast partners and fans in North America. The goal is to raise money and awareness for national and local organizations involved in cancer care and research.

To date, HFC has generated more than $11 million. It's a component of The Biggest Assist Happens Off The Ice, the NHL and NHLPA's social responsibility program. In October alone, HFC raised some $650,000 by hosting nights with all 30 NHL clubs.

I remember when the program launched. A young marketing person, Mary Pat Clarke, handed me an HFC pin: two little sticks bound together with a pledge that hockey would fight cancer. I didn't think it had much of a chance, what with the corporate world surrounding it, but it recently passed its 10 year anniversary. You can't imagine how much that little pin means to me now.

You can contribute by buying HFC items on Shop.NHL.com, through one of their online partners, or by sending a check to your local NHL club marked for Hockey Fights Cancer. It will get to the right place.

Last, but certainly not least, the NHLPA this year got involved with Reflections 2009 photo books signed by NHL team captains. Other items such as a one-of-a-kind NHL Network goalie mask, and caps and jerseys worn by star players on the 2009 media tour last September were made available for bidding through NHLPA.com and NHL.com and generated more than $18,000 for HFC.

The NHLPA also does something near and dear to the hearts of hockey parents via the Goals and Dreams program. Union members recently donated 360 sets of equipment worth $180,000 to grassroots programs in Europe, North America and Africa. More than 40,000 kids have benefited and more than 350 NHL players have been involved. That's not just an effort, it's a legacy, a commitment to the game and kids who want to play even if their families can't afford it.

Maybe this doesn't carry the same weight as kids in a hospital or people battling cancer, but hockey is an expensive sport and, in my mind, a worthy cause. Players and hockey people are giving back to expose kids to something they knew and loved as children, with the full understanding that there are kids out there who haven't been so fortunate. If you think you can help, go to http://www.nhlpa.com/Giving-Back/Goals-And-Dreams. You'll find the experience touches you, and kids all over the world will thank you.

Sure beats watching football all day.

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