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GENEROUS SPIRIT OF HOCKEY STAR WILL BE MISSED

The crowd in Toronto was strictly black tie and evening gowns. Buffalo Sabres center Pat LaFontaine stood in the spotlight, enjoying one of the proudest moments of his storied National Hockey League career.

But as LaFontaine accepted the 1995 Bill Masterton Award for perseverance, he had someone else in mind.

He thought about his young friend, Erik Fanara, back in Buffalo.

LaFontaine dedicated his award to Erik, six months before the North Buffalo youth lost his fight against cancer.

"You learn a lot about perseverance and dedication when you're an athlete," the injured superstar told the crowd and a national television audience. "But I think you learn the true meaning of the words when you see what Erik goes through every day."

The date was July 6, 1995, Erik's 10th birthday. It was one of the best days of his life. That night he had hit a triple in his Hertel-North Park youth baseball championship game. Then he came home to watch LaFontaine's tribute to him on ESPN.

"Mommy, that is the greatest birthday present anybody could ever get me," Erik told his mother, Susan, that night. "My buddy wished me a happy birthday on national television and dedicated his trophy to me."

It turned out to be Erik's last birthday.

That's the Pat LaFontaine that Erik's family and dozens of others in Western New York will miss following his trade Monday to the New York Rangers.

LaFontaine -- hockey superstar, Olympian, Hall of Fame candidate and Western New York fan favorite -- reached out to sick kids, mostly at Children's Hospital, and became their friend.

With the trade of LaFontaine, Western New York children now have lost their two favorite celebrity supporters and role models, LaFontaine and Jim Kelly, in the last eight months.

"I think as a hospital we will miss him, but my concern is for all these kids," said Elsie Dawe, Children's director of development, who accompanied LaFontaine into many kids' rooms. "We can take care of them medically, but the joy he provides for them and the love he gives them, I don't know who's going to do that."

It wasn't just that LaFontaine visited sick kids in Children's Hospital, or participated in hospital fund-raisers, or served on the hospital's board of trustees, or invited sick kids and their families to his luxury box for all home games.

LaFontaine befriended these kids by giving of himself:

He'd call them frequently, from home, from his car phone, even from his hotel when the Sabres were on the road.

On the day of the Variety Club telethon in 1994, LaFontaine heard about Angela Milioto, then 15, who was struck down by bacterial meningitis, a disease that led to liver and kidney failure, partial loss of vision and partial amputations on all four limbs.

That afternoon, LaFontaine spent more than two hours with Angela in the Children's Hospital Intensive Care Unit, holding her hand and talking to her. Since then, he's had countless lengthy conversations with her, helping motivate the current Canisius College sophomore.

"There's nothing she can't tell him," said her mother, Maria. "He's like a big brother to her."

They've become so close, he was her sponsor at Confirmation.

After Jessica Mahaney, 14, of Pembroke was diagnosed with a rare form of adrenal cancer two years ago, LaFontaine became her morale booster through her lengthy chemotherapy, calling her long distance and hosting her family frequently in his luxury box. He even insisted she drive his golf cart at the hospital's golf tournament.

Cancer patients often become known as "that kid with cancer" or "that kid who lost her hair," said Jessica's father, Joseph. "But his paying attention and being there for her meant that there was something positive about her."

"In this day and age, you see what you always hoped to see in a celebrity, the ability to use that celebrity status in a wonderful way. He's a genuine role model."

LaFontaine's friendship with Robert Schwegler, a Roswell Park Cancer Institute patient, triggered his idea to purchase two luxury boxes in Memorial Auditorium, knock out the wall between them and turn them into a special suite for children and their families.

The box later was dedicated in Robert's memory, after he died in 1994 at age 12.

"It's nice to look up and see the kids hanging on the railing, or up walking around," LaFontaine has said. "There's no greater feeling out on the ice than to know that there are some special kids who have the opportunity to view the game."

LaFontaine used to call the Fanara family three to five times per week to check on Erik, who suffered from neuroblastoma, cancer of the nervous system.

When he called at about noon one day in June 1995 and asked, "How's my buddy?," Erik's mother began crying. Erik had lapsed into a semi-coma.

LaFontaine came over late that afternoon and stayed for two hours, sitting on a chair just behind the couch where Erik lay.

"He kept telling him, 'C'mon, buddy, it's time to get up,' and he wanted to take him on a tour of the new arena," Mrs. Fanara recalled.

"I sat here knowing my son was going to die, and I watched a man with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face trying to bring a boy back to life and reality," she added. "Pat refused in his own heart to think that Erik was going to die."

The next day, Erik emerged from his semi-coma.

LaFontaine was a pallbearer for his friend Erik, who died on Jan. 16 (LaFontaine's sweater number) last year.

Five months later, LaFontaine, Mrs. Fanara and Ken Martin Jr. of the Sabres' staff sat in Erik's mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetery for a couple of hours, talking and reminiscing about their late friend and son.

What makes Pat LaFontaine tick?

Those who know him consider him a kind and classy man, armed with a deep compassion for people, a charismatic smile and a special spot in his heart for kids.

These may be little things, but when LaFontaine would see a sportswriter, even one who had been somewhat critical of the Sabres, he'd ask often about his children, by name. And when an employee left the Sabres' front office, LaFontaine often would call the person at home to say good-bye.

Some of his compassion for sick kids apparently stems from the gratitude he and his wife, Marybeth, feel about their three children: Sarah, Brianna and Daniel.

"He always said how grateful he and Marybeth were for the health of their children," Ms. Dawe said. "We all take that for granted. I don't think Pat does."

Mrs. Fanara believes there's something almost magical or mystical about the way LaFontaine relates to kids.

"When Erik and Pat looked at each other, it was like nobody else was in the room," she said. "When I couldn't get Erik to laugh or forget about his pain, Pat could."

Mrs. Fanara used to tell LaFontaine he was an angel sent from heaven.

"He's gifted," she explained. "He has a God-given gift for people. He puts other people before himself. He's an angel."

Then Mrs. Fanara talked about another date etched in the family's memory: July 6, 1996, the day Erik would have turned 11.

Mrs. Fanara, her husband Dennis and their three other children, Dennis Jr., Michael and Roscina, held a backyard birthday party for dozens of relatives and friends.

The idea was to fill some balloons with helium and use a permanent marker to write messages to Erik, before sending the balloons aloft toward the heavens.

LaFontaine -- of course -- called that day from out of town. He said he and Marybeth would crack open a bottle of wine that night and toast Erik.

But he also asked Mrs. Panara to write out a message on a balloon for him: "I miss you, buddy -- your buddy, Pat."

That's what Mrs. Panara did, adding "#16" to the message.

"OK, Eric, here comes your buddy's message," she announced.

"I let that balloon go by itself. And then everybody started saying, 'La-La-La-La-La-Fontaine.' "

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