Ex-hockey player nets goal to help stricken youngsters

Ex-hockey player nets goal to help stricken youngsters
Photo by Steve Mosco
By Steve Mosco

On his way to the National Hockey League’s Hall of Fame, former New York Islander, New York Ranger and Buffalo Sabre Pat LaFontaine learned the value of taking time away from hits and shots on the ice to visit bedridden children at area hospitals.

LaFontaine followed the example of sports legends before him by spending time with sick children — and in the process forged a meaningful life after hockey.

The perennial NHL all-star founded the Companions in Courage Foundation near the end of his playing career in 1997. With the goal of raising funds to build interactive playrooms called Lion’s Dens in hospitals throughout North America, LaFontaine said the nonprofit believes no child should ever have to go through the fight for life alone.

“These children and their parents go through so much,” said LaFontaine at the opening of a Lion’s Den at Cohen Children’s Medical Center at North Shore-LIJ in New Hyde Park, L.I., last Friday. “To see smiles on their faces and to see their moms and dads have a little relief — it’s worth all the work.”

A child’s smile is the goal of these interactive playrooms, which use innovative communications tools to connect young patients to the outside world during their hospital stay.

In Lion’s Dens, youngsters can video conference with children at other hospitals, play video games, watch movies and generally act their age all the while spending quality time with their parents and loved ones in a playful setting.

“Social settings really help children forget about their pain,” said LaFontaine, who played his entire career in New York state and still makes Long Island his home. “It means so much to me to finally bring one of these rooms to Long Island.”

Helping LaFontaine bring this interactive escape to North Shore was the Billie & George Ross Foundation, a New York-based charity that provided the funding to support the enhancement of child health care.

“We have seen firsthand how these setups bring joy to children being treated in the hospitals,” said George Ross. “We know this contributes to the healing process and we’re thrilled to have this special room in a hospital that I support and respect.”

Kevin McGeachy, executive director of Cohen Children’s Medical Center, said these special rooms help to enrich the healing process at the hospital.

“We are a children’s hospital — that is what we do,” he said. “This space will serve as a welcome respite for our pediatric patients from the stress of hospitalization and illness.”

Assisting LaFontaine with the launch of the Lion’s Den at North Shore were fellow former Islanders Bobby Nystrom, Benoit Hogue and Jean Potvin — three NHL competitors among many who share LaFontaine’s belief that hockey players have more to give the world than dynamic wrist shots and crushing checks.

“Hockey was a stepping stone to get me to a place in my life where I can help these children,” he said. “The courage and strength I see in these kids every day inspires me to continue my mission.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4546.