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Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

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BOOK: Companions in Courage
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The McCoy family would arrive about the same time on the weekends and Mr. McCoy and my dad would resurface the ice before
we skated. Mr. McCoy had three sons, so our family would play theirs in shinny hockey—a fun hockey scrimmage. I played shinny
hockey until I was about seven, and by then I was hooked. I loved the game and couldn’t get enough of it.

My dad had started coaching hockey in St. Louis, and my brother, John, played on his team. I begged to play but I was still
too young. Near the end of that school year my dad, who worked for the Chrysler Corporation, was transferred to Michigan.
Fortunately for my brother, sister, and me, my parents bought a house on a lake with an ice arena just a mile away. They had
hockey programs at the arena, and, at the beginning of the next school year, I started playing for Richardson’s Farm Dairy.

I played for Richardson’s for two weeks and then I got the break I was hoping for. I was able to join my brother’s team. It
was more competitive and it also made the travel easier on my parents. Playing at the Lakeland Arena and skating every chance
I got out on Williams Lake consumed me. My brother and I, along with our friends, spent hours and hours on the lake.

Preparing the surface of the lake in front of the family home was always a high priority for my dad, John LaFontaine. At night
my brother and I and some of the neighborhood kids would help him clear away any snow that had fallen, smooth any rough spots,
and spray a thin layer of water on it in preparation for the next day’s activity. Sometimes at night we would hear the lake
cracking as the cold air and warm water underneath the ice met. I can remember that Mom would worry about us and not want
us to be out there late on weekend nights. She would turn off the lights on the rink as a sign for us to come in. Sometimes
we would wait for her to go to sleep, then we’d sneak back in and turn the lights back on and go at it some more. We knew
that we would have to repair it in the morning or after school.

Some mornings the surface would be perfect for skating. Other mornings there would be cracks of all sizes in the ice. My dad
and I would carefully fill in the cracks with snow and spray water over them so the surface would be good for skating. Cracks
made the next day’s “skate” a challenge.

From November through March, Williams Lake hosted many contests between the LaFontaine kids, including my baby sister, Rene,
and any kid who wanted to play hockey, race, or just skate for the fun of it. My dad taught my brother, me, and the other
kids all he knew about skating and the game of hockey. Taking face-offs, learning the proper shooting techniques, skating
forward, backward, and in every direction, keeping the head up, and learning to pass the puck were daily lessons taught and

That and, of course, so much more.

About three years after we moved to this lakeside setting, my best buddy, Donny Smith, and I decided to see how far out we
could go. We were fearless and the lake was frozen, so we took off.

We got quite a ways out, about a hundred feet, when we heard the ice begin to break under our feet. Donny and I looked at
each other nervously, but neither of us wanted to be a “chicken” so we laughed it off and kept walking. The cracking sound
got louder. Donny stood there for a moment but I kept going. I got about twenty feet past Donny when the ice gave way and
I fell into the frigid water. I struggled to keep my head above the surface and finally caught the edge of the ice with my
arms and kept from going completely under. As the ice kept breaking around me, I started yelling to Donny, “Help! Help! Donny!
Get my mom!”

Donny, paralyzed by fear, didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, as the ice kept breaking around me, I could continue to adjust
my grip and keep my head from slipping under, even as the rest of my body flailed away under the ice. My arms were getting
numb, but finally I found a strong enough piece of ice. I was exhausted but, calling on all my strength, I pulled myself onto
the surface. I lay there for a minute, afraid to move. Finally we crawled off the lake and made our way back to my house.
We were both terrified and cold, but when we started to talk about what happened, the fear subsided and we were ready to take
on our next adventure.

What amazes me about this story is its simplicity. It is as though I were saying, “I fell through the ice. I got out. My friend
was there to help and everything was all right. Life is simple. There’s no sweat.” I had learned to ignore the dark side.

. . .

Unfortunately, I couldn’t always avoid the dark side of life.

Why someone close to me had to die at such a young age confused and angered me.

John Brown and I worked together in shop class at Mason Junior High School. I really liked John—he was the tailback on our
football team, a regular, quiet-type guy who was everyone’s friend. We built birdhouses, shelves, and the kinds of things
boys put together in shop.

On a Monday in October I went to class as usual looking forward to seeing and working with John, but he never showed. Afterward
I asked what had happened and was told by the teacher that John had broken his tailbone. The whole school was shook up because
John, along with Joe Cook, was the reason our football team was so good. We figured our season was down the dumper but next
year we’d be on top again because John would be back.

John never came back. John never played football again. He had cancer in the marrow of his bones and that’s why his tailbone
gave way. Six weeks later, John was dead. I cried myself to sleep for two weeks. I never got to say good-bye to him.

I was shattered. How could such a tragic death happen to my friend? Why did death come? What is death? What does it mean to
die? As these questions whirled around inside my head, my mind tried to fit death into my picture of what life was all about.
I knew old people died, but why a young person who has had no chance to live? All of us who knew him cried and tried our best
to make sense out of his loss.

The rest of that school year was tough, and shop was never the same. One of the things that did help me was just skating on
the lake in front of our house. I would talk to John while gliding along on the ice. I don’t know if he heard me, but I prayed
that he did.

I now realize the confusion young kids feel at difficult times. I know how attitudes are formed based on how we experience
life and death. Also, I have come to realize that our youthful perceptions are not always the ones that serve us later in
life. Keeping busy, running, not taking the time to deal with the reality of life just doesn’t work. Little did I know that
falling through the ice, overcoming asthma, and losing a friend to cancer were childhood experiences that would lay a foundation
to help me understand life’s darker places.

It isn’t always trauma that banishes us to those black realms. Sometimes it’s success. So much of my life had been governed
by the expectations of others. Deep within myself, I knew I could not speak and act on what I really felt in my heart because
that would throw the established system out of order. Blessed with athletic talent, I had accomplishments and glory and that
overrode my emotional isolation. This entrenched system confronted me squarely when I began to move beneath the surface of
my life.

Why look beyond or beneath that surface? I guess we really need to if we’re to move forward. Understanding comes hard. But
beneath the surface lie the depths.

For me, ice has a certain symbolism. Ice is nothing but water, right? Just frozen water. As a kid skating with his friends,
as a hockey player, I put my faith in the ice—that it wouldn’t give way underneath me or catch my skate. But the ice can crack
and the frigid water that waits below is deadly.

Hockey moves at an accelerated pace, thanks to the ice. With smooth, powerful, gliding strokes, we hurtle toward the goal,
seemingly in control. It’s an illusion. Control is a momentary blip in a general scheme of chaos. We’re handling the puck,
trying to evade defensemen poking at it or checking us into the boards. It’s like life, only faster. We try to understand
it as best as we can as the action whizzes on around us. And, on occasion, we get dumped hard and hit the ice. Ice lacks a
forgiving texture. You land and you hurt.

What’s next is up to you. You can get up and skate your shift, or you can lie where you’ve fallen, the chill creeping into
your bones. The problem with not getting up is that it gets easier and easier, becomes another way to avoid the challenges
and keeps you from accomplishing anything. So you get up. Even when everything aches. You get up and you skate and you finish
your shift.

That’s simple. That’s life. But life, of course, is never that simple.

The Evolution of Companions in Courage

ust a few weeks into the 1993 season, when I was playing with Buffalo, I had reconstructive knee surgery and began a long,
grueling recovery. Prior to my knee injury I had missed a week here and a month there for minor problems, but never had I
sat out a whole season. I was discouraged and angry. I had just ended an MVP-type season, scoring 148 points, and didn’t understand
the reason for this setback.

It was never my style to sit around and indulge in self-pity, so I tried to keep my attitude up. My message to myself was,
“Don’t sit there so long feeling sorry for yourself that you don’t start learning from what is happening to you.”

I thought of the many people who had supported and cared for me in my recoveries. I wanted to give some of that care back
to people who were struggling. One day my brother, John, was telling me about some of the kids at his hockey school and he
mentioned one of them had a brother undergoing treatment at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. My mind drifted back to when
I played for the New York Islanders and I got to know a young boy named Clinton Brown.

Clinton suffered from a type of dwarfism that twisted and distorted his bones. He would never grow to be taller than three
feet. He had gone through almost thirty surgeries and always seemed to be in a brace. His mom brought him to our practices
because he loved hockey. He was our team’s inspiration. I knew that many people—many, many people—had been there for Clinton
during his trials.

I took this conversation with my brother as an omen, a sign to begin to act on my desire to help others, and much of it began
with Clinton. I always remember him as upbeat and enthusiastic, always positive, with a smile on his face. You think attitudes
don’t matter? Clinton today is nineteen years old and a student at Hofstra University on Long Island, majoring in business
finance. He gets around by himself, driving a specially outfitted van. He wants to be a stockbroker and I know he’ll be a
success. How do I know? Because of what he’s been through.

Anyway, after nearly two months of rehab, I went to Roswell Park to meet young Robert Schwegler. He and the other kids made
an immediate emotional impact on me. They were in big trouble, yet they were affectionate, hopeful, and giving. We’re not
talking a broken arm or knee surgery—we’re talking flat-out survival. These visits with Robert and other challenged children
changed my life. The children I met became my heroes, my first Companions in Courage. They taught me the meaning of courage
and inspired and equipped me to face the sort of adversity that life often brings.

Up to this point I had lived my life maintaining a public image as a professional athlete, but my hardship and being a part
of young kids’ battles pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me begin to understand life differently. One of my favorite
quotes took on new meaning: “To know and not to do is never to know at all.”

Hockey is a demanding sport, but its importance is small compared to a child’s struggle to live. The pain of a slashing stick,
the elbow of an enforcer, or the face-to-face encounters on the ice pale in the light of the physical affliction and devastating
impact of cancer. The cancer ward at Children’s Hospital and Roswell Park became a different kind of “rink” for me. This time,
as a spectator, I watched young children fight a disease in order to win life. I watched them face off in a struggle full
of unfair odds. I watched their “coaches” and “general managers”—those caring doctors and nurses—implement a game plan to
keep the opposition from scoring. They calculated a strategy using love, support, chemotherapy, medication, and radiation
to help their team of courageous kids win their battles.

As I looked on, I learned to love these children. I ached with them, was warmed by their smiling charm, and grieved when they
lost their brave battles.

Robert Schwegler and I developed a special bond because he loved hockey. Robert was twelve and had leukemia, a malignant disease
in the tissues of the bone marrow. His life was in jeopardy. We spent more and more time together; we played Sega and talked
about hockey. Finally, I spoke to the doctors about his love of hockey and wondered how we could get him to a game. While
they understood, they were careful to point out that his weight loss and fragile condition would make such a trip dangerous.
Protection during transportation and a mask for immunity against the normal spectator environment had to be considered. The
cold weather and the general inability to control the people around Robert made it all but impossible.

But something had to be done. My desire to get Robert to a game would not be turned aside. And ultimately the wonderful cooperation
of the medical staff made it possible. Since I wasn’t ready to return to the ice, I was in the broadcast booth, doing the
color commentary. I looked toward section 107 where their seats were located and I spotted Robert’s father carrying him. Robert’s
body looked frail, cradled as it was against his dad. He wore a surgical mask. I watched them settle into their seats and,
throughout the game, stole long looks at them, admiring the love between this father and son. They were thrilled to be at
an athletic event together. The action of the game was intense, and at one point the announcer turned to me for comment when
a puck zipped into the net, but I held up my hand. I couldn’t talk. Emotion coursed through me. I was overwhelmed by the thought
of Robert and his dad sharing the excitement of the game together.

BOOK: Companions in Courage
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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