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LaFontaine runs to raise money for his charity

Former Islanders star Pat LaFontaine, right, and his

Former Islanders star Pat LaFontaine, right, and his father, John Sr., pose for photo during the Williams Lake Cup tournament, held at the hockey rink in Pat's backyard in Lloyd Harbor. Credit: Lloyd Harbor

Pat LaFontaine won't be thinking that much about his time this Sunday when he runs the half-marathon portion of the Long Island Marathon.

It's the faces of children, rather than the face of a clock, that will keep LaFontaine going as he leads a group of 80 competitors running to raise money for his charity Companions in Courage. The charity raises money to build interactive technology centers called "Lions Dens" in children's hospitals across the nation.

It was the face of one particular child, Robert Schwegler, that gave the former Islander Hall of Famer the idea for the charity that developed into Companions in Courage. LaFontaine met Schwegler, a leukemia patient, at a children's hospital in Buffalo when LaFontaine was playing with the Sabres.

"Robert was in isolation 24-7, but I used to come in and play video games with him," LaFontaine said by phone. "He was always the Sabres and I was always the Islanders or the Rangers."

One day when he was leaving the hospital room, a nurse took him aside to thank him. She grabbed his arm and started to cry. "She told me that the time when we were playing video games was the only time of the day when Robert smiles."

The boy died six months later at the age of 12. LaFontaine remains friends with the Schwegler family and says the experience of knowing Robert forever changed his life.

"I figured if I could put a smile on that kid's face, if I could help kids in some way, that's what I had to do," he said. "I wanted to create an oasis for these kids, some place they could just go and escape and be kids."

Jimmy Johnson, the executive director of Companions in Courage, said the charity had built rooms in 10 hospitals, including Huntington Hospital. The group has gotten a number of corporations, including Microsoft, Cisco and DuPont, to donate materials and equipment for the rooms. In addition to playing games, kids are able to video conference with their teachers, and connect on a dedicated network to kids in other children's hospitals. Companions in Courage also has donated 360 Xbox kiosks to 62 hospitals.

"We touch about 40,000 kids on a yearly basis," said LaFontaine, who lives on Long Island with his wife and three children. "These are kids who are isolated in a children's hospital and it's scary. We want to give children an opportunity to escape what they're going through."

LaFontaine recalled a recent visit to the Lions Den room at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital at New York Presbyterian, where he met a young boy who was recovering from a difficult surgery.

"His mother told me that he usually presses the button for pain medication every nine minutes, but that he had gone a full hour without touching it," LaFontaine said. "It's the stories like that that I like to think of when I run."

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