LaFontaine's charity assisting children in need
By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff WriterCHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Five-time NHL All-Star Pat LaFontaine doled out 545 assists in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 15 NHL seasons.
None of those helpers, however, can compare to the biggest assist he's made off the ice through his children's charity, Companions in Courage (CIC).
On Friday afternoon, the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes and LaFontaine unveiled a state-of-the-art "NHL Legacy Classroom" at North Carolina's Children's Hospital to commemorate the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend in Raleigh. The "Legacy Classroom" features Cisco's online conferencing system, WebEx, that allows young patients to connect to family, friends, schools and teachers anywhere in the world during a hospital stay.
"We're just conduits … the kids are the inspiration," LaFontaine said. "They're the ones behind the rooms. We're only here to provide that room and the ability for them to escape. The one thing very special about these rooms is that they are healing centers. There are games and computers and age-appropriate programming, and it gives a child a chance to escape what they're going through each and every day. Not only does it affect the children, but the families and siblings. The rooms promote healing."
Patients are also able to connect to other "NHL Legacy Classrooms" for a collaborative learning experience during school hours and for fun, interactive games and other activities after school hours.
Several current and former NHL players were also present at the opening, including All-Stars Claude Giroux and Danny Briere of the Philadelphia Flyers and Cam Ward of the Hurricanes. NHL alums Aaron Ward, Willie O'Ree and Grant Fuhr were also on hand. Additionally, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Hurricanes' President and General Manager Jim Rutherford, N.C. Children's Hospital Physician-in-Chief Dr. Alan Stiles and Cisco Systems Vice-President of Technical Services Joe Novak each spoke of the wonderful contributions made by LaFontaine's charity.
"This is the first opportunity I've had to visit one of these rooms and it's amazing," O'Ree told NHL.com. "Pat (LaFontaine) is a beautiful human being and he's giving back. The nice thing about giving back is helping those boys and girls. He was not only a great example of a hockey player, but he's a great guy who kids like to be around. He comes and visits and you see the gleam in the young child's eyes. No amount of money can take the place of that. When you make a different in a child's life, it's really a nice feeling."
Giroux and Briere each enjoyed their time in the "NHL Legacy Classroom" alongside several children in wheelchairs. They spoke to fellow All-Star Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs via the online conferencing system and answered questions by patients from other Legacy Rooms in Boston and Montreal.
LaFontaine also entered a few hospital rooms occupied by young bed-ridden children to inform them of the "NHL Legacy Classroom."
Conner Carroll of Wilmington, N.C., is looking forward to using the room.
"I can't wait," said the 10-year-old Carroll.
Additionally, 7-year-old Ashley Burnette of Raleigh offered LaFontaine a big smile when the 1995 Bill Masterton Award winner told her the room could be called Ashley's place.
"It's very exciting and it's going to be great for the kids," Rutherford said. "It's something that the All-Star event will leave here forever. Without the All-Star Game, this event wouldn't be possible because this is how the League reaches out to people that are in need."
The Legacy Rooms were originally founded by the Companions in Courage Foundation and LaFontaine. The Foundation has opened 11 Lion's Den rooms throughout North America, including two with the NHL in Montreal and Boston. Plans for another room were unveiled during the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
"The Hurricanes' organization knows the importance of special words and deeds that can do so much to reassure children in need," Bettman said. "They believe in our saying that the biggest assist happens off the ice and (Friday's) dedication of this room is another indication of that.
"We know this All-Star celebration marks a memorable moment for the people in the Triangle, the Hurricanes and the NHL and we want those memories to endure," Bettman continued. "That's why we're delighted to join Pat LaFontaine and the Companions in Courage Foundation in creating an NHL/NHLPA All-Star Legacy Classroom for N.C. Children's Hospital."
LaFontaine, who received the 2008 Heisman Humanitarian Award, retired from the NHL in 1998 after 15 productive seasons -- 468 goals and 1,013 points in 865 games. In 2003, the two-time Olympian was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I learned when I played the game of hockey that everything happened quickly," LaFontaine told NHL.com. "You chase the next puck, you try to score the next goal and you got the next bus and plane. But in the game of life, it's a process. You learn to be patient and open your eyes to all the opportunities. The thing about CIC, it really evolved from special relationships I had with kids during my days with the Buffalo Sabres (1991-97)."
While the rooms are designed for patients between the ages of 6-17, LaFontaine has recently learned that some hospitals have used the sites as teen centers.
"It has evolved into the children's inspiration and a CIC book and then just took on a life of its own," he said. "That first one was the hardest, and a lot of people told me to throw in the towel, but the game of hockey taught me about perseverance. Going through my own injuries and bouncing back … so we stuck with it and I was lucky to have a right-hand guy in (CIC Executive Director) Jimmy Johnson, who had the same passion as I did."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale