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Pat Lafontaine


New Jersey’s 1st Lion’s Den Opens at Goryeb

by Kevin Coughlin - MorristownGreen

Leave it to a bunch of winter warriors to melt your heart on a 100-degree summer day.

National Hockey League Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine and Delbarton alumni from the 2010 Frozen Flashback classic came to Morristown on Thursday to dedicate the Lion’s Den, a cheery high-tech playroom for pre-teens and adolescents at the Goryeb Children’s Hospital.







“Even in tough times, this will give parents the comfort of knowing that their kids can laugh and smile, and maybe have memories of good times as well as bad times,” said Pat, a two-time 50-goal scorer who skated for the Islanders, Sabres and Rangers in a 15-year career that also included the Olympics and a World Cup victory.

“I guess it was a good idea that the game got canceled,” quipped Delbarton alum Mike Pendy, referring to the Greatest Game Never Played–the 1989 state hockey championship that was canceled by a measles outbreak.







The prep school in Morris Township and St. Joseph Regional High School of Montvale finally did face off, at Mennen Arena in April 2010. Almost all of the original players, now in their 40s, suited up. Dubbed the Frozen Flashback, the game attracted national attention and raised $250,000 for charities including the Lion’s Den.



 



The Lion’s Den is a brightly colored space with four Xbox 360 gaming consoles, personal computers, and two Skype stations where kids and parents can video chat with relatives and other Lion’s Dens across the U.S. and Canada.

“This is going to make such a difference in the children’s lives,” said Dr. Walter Rosenfeld, chairman of pediatrics at the hospital. “Our goal at Goryeb is to give the best care. But you can’t give the best care for children unless you deal with nonmedical issues, too. Making life less abnormal is one of the ways to accomplish that.”

Proceeds from the Frozen Flashback initially helped Pat LaFontaine’s Companions in Courage Foundation place a Lion’s Den in a hospital in Raleigh, N.C., in conjunction with the NHL All-Star game.

James Olsen, one of the Frozen Flashback organizers, started inquiring about doing something similar in New Jersey.

“It’s incredibly rewarding. This is very much a local legacy of the experience we had,” said James, a Basking Ridge resident who helped lead the Green Wave to a 3-2 victory in the Frozen Flashback.

For Pat LaFontaine, one of pro hockey’s greatest American players, hospitals were like a second locker room. His career was cut short by a series of concussions… and he fought to overcome severe depression.

While recovering from knee surgery in Buffalo back in 1994, Pat befriended a 12-year-old leukemia patient named Robert Schwegler. They played video games a few times a week. “Those are the only times this young boy smiles,” a tearful nurse told Pat. Four months later, Robert died.

Pat said the experience inspired the Lion’s Den, named to suggest a place of courage.

“I was always amazed that the kids were the strong ones,” he said. “They would give their siblings and families strength.”

Pat, who coached his teenaged son Daniel on a Long Island team, was accompanied by his daughter Sarah, a college student at Miami of Ohio who briefly tried hockey in her youth but preferred cheerleading. “I didn’t have the muscles” for hockey, she said with a grin.

Her dad said he also had hoped to bring the Stanley Cup. But the Devils came up a little short this month and it’s residing in Los Angeles. So he brought two members of past Devils Stanley Cup teams, Bruce Driver and Grant Marshall.

They signed autographs for 16-year-old Connor Mooney, who looked ready to skate despite his appendectomy the day before.

“You always think of these guys as seven- or eight feet tall. When you see them in real life, they’re just normal people,” said Connor, smiling from ear to ear.

“Really awesome!” chimed in his brother Brendan, 12.



 



That was the verdict from another patient, 15-year-old Peter Hendershot, who was engrossed in NBA Live on the Xbox. David Hodges, an 11-year-old being treated for chronic kidney disorders, also liked the Lion’s Den.

“It’s much more improved than the other one,” he said. “It’s more colorful.”

David’s mother, Carol Hodges, donated one of her kidneys to him when he was a baby. David cannot play sports, and much of his life is spent at Goryeb. The Lion’s Den will give him the vicarious thrill of video sports, and will connect him to his teachers via Skype.

“This opens a whole new world to him,” his mom said.



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