Monday, June 25, 2007

The Puck Stops Here

Concussions, broken jaws, shoulder separations, and a knee that required reconstruction.

Not many people would consider those injuries a blessing. But former National Hockey League great Pat LaFontaine has a unique perspective on his playing days – especially the knee reconstruction surgery which led him to what he considers his true vocation in life.

Pat is a Hockey Hall of Famer who played for the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres, and New York Rangers. In fact, he’s one of the highest scoring Americans ever to play the game. So when Pat had to sit out a whole season because of a knee injury, he was devastated.

On the radio program “Personally Speaking with Monsignor Jim Lisante,” Pat recalled that his wife Marybeth was sympathetic to his plight, but also saw he needed some ‘tough love’ to get out of his funk. She pointed out that feeling sorry for himself for the next six months wouldn’t benefit anyone. Instead Marybeth suggested he adopt a new perspective and realize, “There’s something to be learned here.”

One week later, Pat got a call to visit Robert Schwegler, a 12 year-old boy hospitalized during a harsh bout with leukemia. Pat had always taken time to visit with sick children but this one was especially memorable because Robert was so sick, he had to be confined to isolation.

Two or three times a week, Pat would arrive at the hospital on crutches and don a cap, mask and gown to protect Robert from any potentially dangerous germs. The next hour or so would be spent playing a hockey video game and enjoying each other’s company.

One day as Pat was leaving, the nurse stopped him to say, “I just want to thank you for coming to see Robert.” Pat’s response was, “Of course. Robert’s my friend.” The nurse then broke down in tears and said, “You don’t understand. It’s the only time he smiles.” That exchange became one of the defining moments of Pat’s life. He remembers thinking, “(You) never realize the impact friendship can have.”

Though Robert passed away six months later, Pat has ensured that his legacy lives on through the “Companions in Courage Foundation” created in 1997. Taking into account how physically and emotionally draining it is for kids to endure serious illness and hospitalization, Pat realized “they could use an oasis, a safe haven, a place they can call their own (where) they can create art and music and go on the internet and talk to their friends and videoconference their heroes, teachers, parents and grandparents - just have a place where they can connect with the outside world and be able to be a kid again.”

These special environments, called “Lion’s Den Rooms,” currently exist in three children’s hospitals in New York State. The goal, of course, is to make them as available as possible so Pat works tirelessly to raise awareness and funding for the project.

Pat earned tremendous professional success playing hockey but now sees his playing days as merely a stepping stone. “I always say what happens to you is preparing you for what you’re supposed to do next in your life,” he explains. “Having gone through (my own) injuries taught me how vulnerable we are and how…we need each other.”

Pat’s Catholic Christian faith is another determining factor in why he chooses to spend his time the way he does. He says, “Jesus suffered and died for us. He gave up himself and His life for our sins. I think in our lifetime we’re supposed to learn that it’s about sacrifice, it’s about giving back. Unfortunately sometimes the most painful things you go through in your life also guide (you) to the most important things. In the end there’s…peace and there’s heaven and there’s a place we all go to where we’ll see each other again.”

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