Pat LaFontaine's contribution to Western New York is felt by children each day at the Women's and Children's Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y.
LaFontaine, who will have his number retired this Friday by the Sabres, saw his vision of creating a sanctuary for sick and disabled children come to life last August when the Companions in Courage Lions Den was officially opened and has bettered the lives of children ever since.
"This has always been a dream of mine to come back to Buffalo, a place where Companions in Courage really evolved," stated LaFontaine, who created CiC during his years as a player with the Sabres. "There are a lot of special memories and relationships I've had in Buffalo, especially at (Women's and Children's)."
"To see (the dream) come to fruition, with the help of so many people, is a tremendous feeling," stated LaFontaine.
The state of the art, interactive computer and game room was designed by Edwin Schlossberg's ESI Design of New York to provide a sanctuary for children to forget their pain, suffering or disease, and find fun and enjoyment at least for a short period of time.
The only facility of its kind in Western New York and just the second interactive playroom in the United States, the Lions Den features personal computers with internet access, video games and a privacy pod - with a webcam and extra large monitor with video conferencing capabilities - intended to bring a child's family, friends or relatives right into the hospital.
The igloo shaped room is adorned with translucent screens and lighting of different colors, intended to emit a soft and warm environment.
"The amazing thing about the room is that when you sit down in a chair, you can feel the colors kind of overwhelm you and you forget where you are for a little while," said LaFontaine.
The Lions Den is located on the ninth floor of Children's Hospital and is accessible to children and their families – who require close monitoring following surgery – throughout the entire hospital.
The $300,000 facility was financed almost entirely through fund raising and donations, with the majority of the money being raised in December 2004 when the Sabres and LaFontaine hosted the Hockey Legends Charity Weekend, which raised $100,000. Sabres Owner, B. Thomas Golisano graciously matched those funds with a $100,000 donation.
"To see what Mr. Golisano did (at the Hockey Legends dinner) for the foundation, the children of Buffalo and this community… I was overwhelmed," stated LaFontaine.
"Heather and I came to the dinner and we were absolutely amazed at the enthusiasm and number of people that were attracted to this event," stated Golisano. "I'll tell you very candidly, we got caught up in the event, the enthusiasm, energy and people's understanding of the cause."
"We are very fortunate, Heather and I to be in a position to almost instantly make a decision to help this foundation," continued the Sabres owner. "There is no better cause in humanity than to help a child in my opinion."
The CiC Foundation opened a similar playroom at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital in Westchester, N.Y. in January 2005.
"Companions in Courage is a conduit to fulfill the inspiration of the children," said LaFontaine.
Extremely active in the community during his playing days in the National Hockey League and subsequently following his premature retirement from the game in 1998 due to medical reasons, the Hall-of-Fame forward has been motivated by his past experiences with ailing children to build these interactive rooms.
As LaFontaine addressed the media at the room's inauguration, he couldn't help but tell a story of a young man who impacted his life in 1993.
"There was one boy I met (at Children's Hospital), his name was Eric," reminisced LaFontaine. "The thing that really touched me was that we would play video games - I was the Islanders and Rangers because he always wanted to be the Sabres – and he would always beat me or we'd tie a game every once in a while. One day leaving the hospital, one of the nurses touched me on the shoulder and said, 'Thank you so much for coming.'"
"I replied, 'It's the least I can do … Eric is my friend," continued LaFontaine. "She broke down into tears and said, 'You don't understand. It's one of the only times he smiles.' I never forgot that."
Because of Eric and many others, children at Women's and Children's Hospital now have somewhere to go and forget there problems.