It was 12 years ago that the Hall of Fame center founded the Companions in Courage Foundation, an organization used to build interactive game rooms in children's hospitals throughout North America. Since 2005, CiC has been building "Lion's Den" interactive game rooms within those hospitals with the goal of replacing the isolation of a hospital stay with a connection to family, friends and even celebrities.
"No child in the fight for life or health should ever have to go through it alone and Companions in Courage provides support while letting them know they are not alone and isolated," LaFontaine told NHL.com. "The Lion's Den eases the pain a little bit and we're not just talking about the children hospitalized, but their siblings and parents."
On Friday, the NHL and NHLPA partnered with LaFontaine's foundation to establish the All-Star legacy "Lion's Den" at Sainte-Justine University Hospital in Montreal -- the first Lion's Den unveiled in Canada. A ribbon-cutting ceremony included LaFontaine, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly, Executive Director of Sainte-Justine Dr. Fabrice Brunet, and Montreal Canadiens President and Chairman of the Board of the Sainte-Justine Foundation, Pierre Boivin.
"The NHL is thrilled to be involved in this Lion's Den playroom and to have it unveiled as part of the 2009 NHL All-Star celebration," Bettman said. "Everyone knows what an amazing hockey player Pat was in the NHL, but they may not be aware of how hard he and his foundation work to support children in need. We are proud to work with his Companions In Courage Foundation in donating this room to the children of Sainte-Justine."
Several current and former NHL players were also present at the opening, including NHL All-Star starters Mike Komisarek and Alex Kovalev of the Canadiens, All-Star reserve Vincent Lecavalier of Tampa Bay and YoungStars representatives Steven Stamkos of the Lightning and Luke Schenn of Toronto. NHL alums Clark Gillies and current Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey were also on hand.
"What's exciting for me is that I literally started my career in Montreal (with the Verdun Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1982-83)," LaFontaine said. "We have Lion's Dens' in all the areas where I've played professionally and in Florida, but the one spot where it really started for me was in Montreal and it's kind of ironic that we're finally building the first Canadian room in Montreal, where I left home to play junior hockey when I was 17."
The All-Star legacy playroom at Sainte-Justine's will be an interactive game room utilizing innovative communications tools, including multiple Xbox 360 consoles and games, flat panel televisions connected to Windows Media Servers and video conference pods that connect patients with family and friends.
"I take my hat off and commend the NHL and NHLPA and the All Stars for understanding the importance of giving back and leaving the legacy of Lion's Den for the kids for many years to come," LaFontaine said. "It's a very special safe haven and oasis that the kids will be able to enjoy. This weekend is something I'll always remember; it'll put a smile on my face but, most importantly, a smile on many kids' faces at St. Justine's."
While this will be the first Lion's Den established in Canada, it will be the eighth overall as the foundation has placed five rooms throughout New York and two in Florida.
LaFontaine hopes one day to establish a Lion's Den in every children's hospital across North America and, perhaps, even expand overseas.
"When I played junior hockey, my vision was to one day play in the NHL, but who would have ever thought it would happen," LaFontaine said. "I've always admired the Ronald McDonald House. It took 32 years for that organization to build 212 rooms around the world and they had the daunting task of not only finding real estate, but creating foundations.
"At Companions in Courage, the spaces are there and the foundations are in place, so it's just a matter of working on the funding and having the hospital excited about taking the initiative."
While the rooms are designed for patients between the ages of 6-17, LaFontaine has recently learned that some hospitals have used the sites as teen centers.
"Some designate the room for kids 10-17, and they create play rooms for the younger kids," LaFontaine said. "In the (Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo), we created a bigger room for kids to create art and use their hands and also have a video room so it's entirely up to the hospital and their needs."
LaFontaine, a five-time NHL All-Star, admitted there are at least five more playrooms scheduled to be opened this year.
He recently received a Christmas card from Connor Meyers, a patient at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital at New York Presbyterian, last year. The 17-year-old Meyers, diagnosed with Crohn's disease, underwent four surgeries and was forced to drag an IV pole that contained the morphine he would release into his arm every eight minutes to alleviate the pain.
"When Connor started playing with the other kids in the Lion's Den in the hospital, he forgot all about the pain and didn't have to press that button for almost an hour," LaFontaine said. "I don't think people realize that whatever your position in life, you can have an impact on somebody else by just spending time or creating an environment where kids feel safe."
LaFontaine, who garnered the 2008 Heisman Humanitarian Award, retired from the NHL in 1998 after 15 productive seasons -- 468 goals and 1,013 points in 865 games. In 2003, the two-time Olympian was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I was blessed to have the family I have and to be able to have the career I did, both professionally and internationally, playing in the NHL and representing my country, I am thankful every day that I was able to live out a dream."
-- Pat LaFontaine
He'd be the first to tell you his biggest assist has been for the children benefiting from the Companions in Courage Foundation.
"During my playing days, I met some very special kids who were going through some tough times at children's hospitals, and they really taught me the meaning of courage," he said. "I look at my playing career as somewhat of a stepping stone to what I'm doing now. We've given children a chance to escape what is happening with them and to give them an opportunity to just be a kid again."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.