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All-star legacy provides 'safe haven' for CHEO kids

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
The excitement of NHL All-Star Weekend isn't destined to last forever.

But in at least one little corner of the nation's capital, its touch figures to be felt long after the National Hockey League's mid-season showcase event has moved on to another locale.

The smiles on children's faces at the Children's Hospital of Ontario said everything about the impact of the NHL All-Star Legacy Playroom, which was officially unveiled Friday morning by representatives of the Ottawa Senators, the National Hockey League, the NHL Players' Association and Pat LaFontaine, a Hockey Hall of Famer whose Companions in Courage charity is a driving force behind this community initiative.

Companions in Courage has created 14 of the rooms — known as 'Lions Dens' — in children's hospitals across North America. Five of them have now been opened in NHL cities in partnership with the league and 'PA. The new playroom at CHEO follows in the footsteps of such facilities in Montreal, Calgary, Pittsburgh and Raleigh, N.C.

"Long after the all-star game is over, there's this legacy of hope and smiles that will be here for these kids for many, many more years," said LaFontaine, a former NHL star with the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. "It's a safe haven, a place for children to escape and just be kids again. They can forget about their pain for a bit and talk to one of their heroes. They can video conference their teachers, or be able to play with one of their siblings.

"It takes a little bit of the pressure off families. To me, that's the real assist, that's the real score in life."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman applauded all involved with bringing the playroom to CHEO.

"It's just another example of all the good work our players and our teams do throughout the season," he said. "(The playroom) is a place that is of inspiration, of imagination and connection. It's a place for children to escape, for a brief time, the rigours of hospitalization and medical treatment. They can do what kids do and do it in this environment."

In Ottawa, LaFontaine's charity also worked closely with the Sens Foundation to build the interactive room, which features video conferencing technology supplied by presenting sponsor Cisco that allows children to communicate with kids in any of the other Lions Dens or perhaps have the chance to connect with one of their hockey heroes.

"Health care is one of the pillars in the Sens Foundation and CHEO is one of our biggest partners — we’ve been supporting them for a long time," said Danielle Robinson, the Sens Foundation's president. "This new playroom is going to be an incredible resource and bring a lot of joy and laughter to kids’ lives. That’s what we’re here to do, improve the lives of our children in the region.

"I always say that the Sens Foundation is so lucky to have so many partners in what it does. Without them, we really would not be as successful as we are. For the NHL to bring the all-star event to Ottawa and then to leave these kinds of legacies for (CHEO) and to work with us and our great corporate partners to make a difference is what it’s all about."

Team owner Eugene Melnyk, a founding sponsor of Roger's House — a pediatric respite and palliative care home located next door to CHEO — said the new playroom offers another example of how the game's players, and the Senators in particular, can improve lives in their community.

"It's very important to our players and we try to instill that in them from the day they come (to Ottawa)," he said. "We do a lot in the community and that just continues, and they realize how wonderful it is to give back and put a smile on a child's face.

"The opening of this playroom reminds us we can take a great sport like hockey and truly have it shape our community for the better ... We have created something that I am certain will touch many lives and help make their time here at CHEO and at Roger's House a little easier and a little bit more playful."

Senators rookie forward Colin Greening, who's taking part in Saturday's Molson Canadian All-Star Skills Competition at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC), has quickly noticed the special connection the team has developed with the capital.

"It shows what kind of stance we want to have in the community," he said. "We want to be thought of as leaders and role models. As hockey players, when we come to these kinds of places, we realize it's important to give back. So I think this (playroom) is a great initiative that they're starting." 

LaFontaine shared a story he was told about a young girl at CHEO whose recovery "took a totally different turn" for the better since a pre-Christmas hospital visit from Senators centre Jason Spezza.

"I say this to all the players," he said. "I don't think you realize the impact, from the position you're in, that you can have on a child. You can connect and make a difference. There is no greater feeling than when you hear a parent tell you that a visit, just a smile you put on someone's face, was a turning point in their recovery."

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