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Pat Lafontaine

The Lion's Den: Where a Kid Can be a Kid

By John Dunphy – Morristown Patch

Eleven-year-old David Hodges has been in pain his entire life.

Born with diseased kidneys and osteoporosis, the Ramsey resident currently receives blood tests on a monthly basis. His mother, Carol, said that may need to be increased to twice a month. She said her son is a worrier, which is understandable considering his circumstances.

But, when he comes to the new Lion's Den playroom at the Goryeb Children's Hospital, "he hasn't complained once," she said.

The new playroom at the hospital, which celebrates its 10th anniversary at Morristown Medical Center, was donated by proceeds from the "Frozen Flashback" hockey game–played in April 2010–and the Companions in Courage foundation, created by NHL Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine.

LaFontaine, who played 15 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres, has helped build 18 similar rooms–which feature such creature comforts as multiple XBox 360 videogame systems, computers and video conferencing connection between all of the Lion's Dens throughout North America. More than 50,000 hospitalized children per year now visit a Lion's Den or play with their mobile XBox Kiosks. The Lion's Den at Goryeb is the first in New Jersey.

Companions in Courage partnered for the Goryeb Lion's Den project with "Frozen Flashback," a 2010 hockey game played at Mennen Arena in Morris Township between the Class of 1989 Delbarton High School and St. Joseph Regional High School of Montvale, which were supposed to compete that year for the state championship. A measles outbreak, however, forced the cancelation of the game, and the two teams were declared co-state champions. Proceeds from "Frozen Flashback," which saw all but only three of the 1989 team members participate, went toward the creation of The Lion's Den at Goryeb Children's Hospital.

For LaFontaine, his philanthropy began following a knee reconstruction in 1993, while he was playing in Buffalo. The children's hospital at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute didn't even have cable television for them to forget about their pain and troubles, if only for a little while, he said.

There, LaFontaine met an eight-year-old patient named Robert Schwegler, whom he befriended through playing videogames with two-to-three times a week.

There, he discovered the importance of giving these children an outlet and place that wasn't IV's, surgeries and worry.

"A nurse grabbed me and thanked me," LaFontaine said. "She said, 'this is the only time this boy smiles.'"

Robert Schwegler died several months later.

Many children since him have benefited from the time away from the real world they have been able to enjoy in the nearly two dozen Lion's Dens through the United States and Canada.

"This is what they need, to turn off their sickness and have fun," said West Caldwell resident Dawn Rapsas, whose son Michael, 8, was enjoying a game of Hydro Thunder on the XBox 360 following the Thursday press conference.

David Hodges sat nearby, racing through a Sonic the Hedgehog game. "I'm really happy to have this," he said.

"He grew up in this room," mother Carol said of David, who has come to Goryeb Children's Hospital since its inception. With The Lion's Den creation out of the old playroom, she said, "he's like, 'oh my God, this is going to make my day.'

"It's a great distraction, it's wonderful," Carol said. "Through the IVs and bloodwork, they can talk on Skype, email, play games. This will make life so much better."

LaFontaine said of The Lion's Den program, "if we can create these rooms, maybe more kids can just be kids."

Cisco Dupont Microsoft XBox National Hockey Leaugue