Forget the fact he's a local boy who made the big leagues. What made Patrick Kaleta a fan favorite in Buffalo was his relentless attitude. He never took a shift off.
Nothing has changed.
A typical day for Kaleta includes coaching teenagers, helping a charity, introducing kids to hockey, meeting with consultants for the sports complex he's building, planning unforgettable surprises and skating with his 11-month-old son.
"When I get something to do, I do it to the best of my ability with an all-in attitude, with everything I can do to make it the best it can possibly be," Kaleta said. "I will sit there and work at it until it gets there. That's the attitude and approach that I have."
After a decade of running opponents into the boards and blocking shots with his face, Kaleta is in his second season as the Sabres' youth hockey ambassador. The 31-year-old has taken to the job with his typical drive.
The Learn to Play program is the prime example. The Sabres hired him to implement it, and it's grown in almost unimaginable ways in 10 areas of Western New York, everywhere from Amherst to Olean.
The basics of the program for children are this: First-time players pay $100 and get full equipment from helmet to skates, plus eight ice times. There's nothing basic about the rest.
Kaleta has brought in fellow former NHLers Cody McCormick and Darryl Shannon to help teach the 650 children. He's recruited four Buffalo Beauts to inspire the girls in the program. He's working with local Olympian Adam Page to start a sled hockey class next year.
"I have plenty of ideas," Kaleta said. "It's not about doing whatever everyone else does. We can be the leaders in that area rather than worry about everyone else."
He's seen an immediate impact with the addition of the Beauts' Jacquie Greco, Hayley Scamurra, Corinne Buie and Maddie Elia. Kaleta estimates 25 percent of the kids in the program are girls, and they see possibilities for the future from members of the National Women's Hockey League.
"I feel it's important for them to see people who play professionally for the Buffalo Beauts," Kaleta said. "If I want to play NHL women's hockey, this is who I look up to and how I can get there."
Kaleta has also turned the finale of the eight-outing sessions into a major-league experience. Each group is affiliated with a local hockey organization, and he used the Buffalo Shamrocks based at Nichols School as his crowning moment last season.
Prior to the games, a bagpipe group led the players onto the ice. Sabres national anthem singer Doug Allen performed "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sabretooth skated. Kaleta led the kids in the "Hokey Pokey" during intermission. After the buzzer, the children were introduced individually over the loudspeaker and came up to receive a certificate of completion.
"It was something they'll remember probably for the rest of their lives," Kaleta said.
He is adding even more this year. Two or three kids from every session will randomly receive a blue and gold ticket — "It's kind of like 'Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' " Kaleta says — and it will serve as their entrance to the big time.
"I've got a couple buddies lined up," Kaleta said coyly in regards to former teammates, "and we're going to give them autographed jerseys and let them skate with Sabres."
Kaleta is working with older kids, too, as the assistant coach for the Buffalo Junior Sabres midget team. The 15- and 16-year-olds play an elite schedule that includes trips to Arizona, Boston and Pittsburgh.
"I do practices and am learning the coaching side of things," said the Angola native and Hamburg resident. "It's actually pretty cool. We have some high-end players.
"Just to be able to relate to them at 16, some of the things that they're going through are some of the same things that I had to go through, so it's pretty cool when they look to me for advice and just life lessons."
Kaleta still runs his HITS Foundation, which stands for helping individuals to smile. Its huge project is building a sports complex in Hamburg.
The town recently ended its dealings with a Canadian company to build rinks, clearing the way for Kaleta. He has hired consultants, project managers and grant writers.
"Everyone always says, 'When is that rink coming up?' " Kaleta said. "I just try to tell them, 'Hey, there's a lot of work that needs to be done behind the scenes to make sure everything is correct.'
"We are working on it daily, and as soon as it can be up, it will be up."
An expanded town board will begin its new term in January.
"You more likely than not would hear more stuff happen after Jan. 1," Kaleta said. "Everyone always thinks it's just hockey rinks. Hockey is obviously the main tenant, but I have a vision of an educational room. I have a vision of a whole slew of different things to make this project so unique that it will be amazing for our community."
The community includes Kaleta and his wife, Ashley, and their young son, Cooper. The toddler went on the ice for the first time Wednesday at the Sabres' family party. Cooper is already taking after his father.
"He was laughing, especially when we were going faster," Kaleta said.
The active schedule allows Kaleta to keep his mind off one simple fact: He wishes he was still playing. Not surprisingly, his battered body can't handle it anymore.
"I'd be lying if I said it still didn't hurt to watch," he said. "If you're a player that cares, it's always going to hurt to a certain extent. But I have an opportunity to do what I'm doing with kids who are just learning and loving to play hockey."
If he does that for the rest of his professional life, so be it. But just like his imagination goes wild with the Learn to Play program, it is picturing bigger things for himself, too.
"My job is to learn the business side of hockey, to learn anything and everything I possibly can," Kaleta said, "so if and when an opportunity arises to maybe — I don't want to say move up the ladder — but to change course, then I will be comfortable enough and people that are hiring will be confident enough that I can change course with the Buffalo Sabres' organization.
"I will always want to be part of the Buffalo Sabres' organization. I'm looking to do the best I can for this organization."
Story topics: Patrick Kaleta