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Maven's Memories: Pat LaFontaine, Superstar and Super Philanthropist

Pat LaFontaine's on-ice play was matched by his off-ice charitable work

by Stan Fischler @StanFischler / NewYorkIslanders.com

He didn't mean it this way but when Pat LaFontaine became an Islander in 1983, his arrival in Uniondale spawned two careers.

The first -- as we all know -- was an extraordinary Hall of Fame hockey run.

The second -- which began innocently enough -- was as a very special philanthropist whose work on Long Island continues to this day.

To better understand how one spawned the other, we must first flash back to the NHL Entry Draft in June 1983 when GM Bill Torrey selected center Patty third overall.

It was one of the best moves Bow Tie Bill ever made and is underlined by LaFontaine's heroics. 

He scored 50 goals twice, 40 goals five times and 30 goals twice with the Islanders. Perhaps the most memorable of those goals was delivered in a marathon known as "The Easter Epic."

The playoff game between the Islanders and Capitals began on Saturday night, April 18, 1987 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. It concluded until 2 a.m. Easter Sunday when LaFontaine beat Bob Mason in the Washington goal.

Video: 1987: Pat LaFontaine wins "Easter Epic" for Islanders

Such on-ice heroics were matched by Patty away from the rink when he joined veteran teammates on visits to local hospitals.

"I went along with the older players," Pat recalled. "It was the visit to the pediatric wards that really had a strong emotional effect on me. After a while I felt very strongly about doing more than just visiting the patients. 

In 1991 Pat became one of the first athletes in pro sports to buy a luxury suite (Suite 16) and donate it to a local children's hospital. But this was just the start of something big.

"My wife, Mary Beth, and I wanted pediatric patients and their families to have a safe place where they could go with friends to feel normal," LaFontaine explained. "Eventually we created what we called 'Companions in Courage' (CIC) and incorporated it as a public charity."

The fact of the matter is that Pat had already become so involved that he easily could have called it The Pat LaFontaine Foundation. But his work was not an ego trip.

LaFontaine; "This was not about me. I scored enough goals in my life. This was all about gathering assists. It's about helping kids in the hospital and we're all companions to that."

In 2001 the CIC hired a design team to create an experimental and environmental space for pediatric patients that would promote healing.

"We called it 'The Lion's Den Room.' Our idea was to provide a haven for patients to go to during their hospital stay. We wanted them to be able to connect with their classmates, families and even their heroes."

For LaFontaine, he was learning while doing. One discovery was that technology introduced to the healing process proved to be effective.

Tweet from @CiC16foundation: Congrats to our friends @ctchildrens on the FIFTH anniversary of the opening of your Lion's Den Room! #MasottaFamily #patlafontaine pic.twitter.com/dKANFEdXFW

But it was the emotional effects that convinced Patty that he was doing the right thing. Exhibit A involved the first Lion's Den Room at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Westchester.

LaFontaine: "A patient in her pajamas dragged her IV pole to the door and asked if she could play a video game," LaFontaine revealed. "Within minutes a woman appeared at the door and she was sobbing.

"The woman said that the patient was her daughter, and she hadn't smiled in almost a week. 'Look at her laughing as if everything was normal,' the mother said. 'This is the best part of my day.'"

Then, a pause, and Pat added, "That's when we knew we had a success on our hands."

That "success" has been evident in many ways for innumerable patients. Among other benefits, Pat's foundation has designed and installed 20 Lion's Den rooms in hospitals across North America. 

Meanwhile, the NHL has partnered to build legacy rooms during Winter Classics and All-Star Games.

"I also got football involved," Pat added. "CIC worked with the Heisman Trophy Trust to bring the top collegiate football players to the hospitals on our Lion's Den Network."

LaFontaine -- a permanent Long Islander who lives in Huntington -- eventually persuaded such industry giants as Microsoft and Google to get on the CIC bandwagon.

Microsoft built 400 mobile Xbox kiosks that could be wheeled to patient's besides. CIC helped distribute those units to 80 children's hospitals across North America. 

And on Long Island, the Cohen Children's Medical Center teamed with the foundation to introduce 3D printers to further engage patients.

LaFontaine: "The printers had a profound effect on patients with eating disorders. By giving these patients control over something in their life, it started them on the path to healing."

As for Google, it partnered with CIC during COVID restrictions to provide Chromebooks and Pixel Slates to patients in an additional 42 hospitals so they could get homework assignments and stay connected to the outside world.

The beauty part for Patty takes place when he encounters someone who he'd once helped. One episode involved a patient who had a brain cyst removed and had a chance to thank LaFontaine for his personal involvement.

"You influenced my recovery," the former patient told the ex-hockey star. "That gesture showed me that you were more than a hockey player. You will always be part of our community."

The former Islander remains secure in the knowledge that he's made a major difference on the ice and off the rink as well.

More than 50,000 pediatric patients annually either visit a Lion's Den Room, play on a mobile Xbox unit or get their homework on a tablet that has been provided by LaFontaine's Companion In Courage Foundation.

As one of Pat's pals put it: "He's not only one of hockey's top all-time players but a top -100 human being as well!"

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