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NHL officials, Irish tenor aid sick Buffalo kids

by John McGourty /

"It brings everything into perspective, especially handing out gifts at Christmas.  You see kids with terminal illnesses sitting in their rooms and smiling like nothing is wrong. They brighten my day as much as I hope to brighten theirs."
-- NHL linesman Brad Kovachik

The next time you're at an NHL game and inclined to yell "C'mon Stripes, have a heart," over some call against your team, Google "Zebra's Care," the charitable initiative of the NHL Officials Association.

One thing NHL officials have in common and in quantity is big hearts. These guys log more miles in a season than a GPS satellite but still find time to visit children's hospitals and raise money for a variety of worthwhile causes.

Members of the NHLOA leadership will be in Buffalo Thursday for the grand-opening celebration of the new infusion area at Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo. The infusion area serves children with cancer and other diseases that require an infusion of chemotherapy drugs, blood products and other medications.

"We started our affiliation with the hospital just prior to the Winter Classic game on Jan. 1, 2008," said NHL linesman Brad Kovachik, a member of the NHLOA Zebra's Care Committee. "They helped us organize a hospital visit with a group there called Stone's Buddies. We hung out with the kids and they had a question-and-answer session with us.

"I visited there again last year at Christmas. This is the kind of thing that Zebra's Care wants to get involved with. The first part is getting the sick and underprivileged kids out to watch an NHL game and the second part is the hospital visits that we can do. We're looking at this as a pilot project and in the future we'll want to do more of this."

"(The NHLOA) hosted a party for the Stone's Buddies members on Dec. 31, 2007, while they were in town for the 2008 NHL Winter Classic," said hospital spokeswoman Lisa LaTrovato. "NHL officials Brad Kovachik, Don Van Massenhoven and Tim Nowak were on hand to entertain the kids, answer questions and ring in the New Year."

Kovachik, a linesman, said that as a resident of nearby Fort Erie, Ontario, it was an honor to be selected for the 2008 Winter Classic and to officiate the game with Buffalo native Nowak. He said the hospital visit before the game had an impact personally, when he saw young children with terminal illnesses.

"It brings everything into perspective, especially handing out gifts at Christmas," Kovachik said. "You see kids with terminal illnesses sitting in their rooms and smiling like nothing is wrong. They brighten my day as much as I hope to brighten theirs."

The NHLOA will donate multiple portable-gaming systems and games to be used in the center while the young patients undergo treatment. With NHL 10 at his or her fingertips, a child can forget for a few minutes or hours that he's hooked to an IV drip and instead pretend he's Thomas Vanek on a point-a-game clip.

"Patients can spend up to 8 hours a day in infusion receiving life-saving treatments" said Joanne Lana, director of the Stone's Buddies program. "Giving them the opportunity to play with these state-of-the-art gaming systems will help the time to pass more quickly and give them something to look forward to when they need to be in the hospital. We are so grateful to the Zebras Care organization for their compassion and generosity".

While the NHLOA helps to raise funds for a variety of important causes, they have targeted blood cancers, like the one that claimed the life of Hall of Fame linesman John D'Amico in 2005.

"John's son, Angelo D'Amico, has done a wonderful job bringing attention to blood cancers," Kovachik said. "I was lucky to have John as my supervisor when I started and he helped me tremendously. Angelo runs the Skate-A-Thon in Toronto each year, where many of our guys participate, and an annual charity golf tournament.

"So when we see the kids in the Buffalo hospital infusion area with many different types of cancer, including blood cancers, it's something close to the hearts of many of our NHLOA members."

The NHLOA has formed a close association with Irish tenor John McDermot, who is also planning to be in attendance at the 1 p.m. Thursday opening celebration at Women and Children's Hospital.

"When I do the anthem at NHL games, going back to 1987, I always have a quick chat with the officials," McDermott said. "After the game, I usually have a beer with them. If I'm doing a concert and the officials in town have a night off, I get them tickets. I go way back with Ray Scapinello and hung out with his crew before (the final game of) the 1993 Stanley Cup. John D'Amico was a very good friend and I was with him to the end. He used to give me bottles of his homemade wine and I'd give him my CDs.

"When I found out what the officials were doing with children's hospitals, I started putting money aside and making contributions every few months. They always put it to a good cause. My sister and other family members died of cancer so part of my charitable efforts have been against cancer and the other part for the military and shelters for homeless veterans."

Stone's Buddies was created in memory of former patient Stone Filipovich as a unique network of resources, support, friendship and fun for chronically ill children and their families at Women & Children's Hospital. In addition to such special events, members of Stone's Buddies are also offered access to resources that help children and their families cope with difficult situations; special offers to exciting activities; a chance to talk with other patients and families in similar circumstances; invitations to special events in the community and/or at Women & Children's Hospital and the opportunity to make new friends.

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