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The first time it happened was half a career ago.

It was the winter of 1994 and Rob Ray had been listening to then Sabres defenseman Charlie Huddy talk about a little program Huddy had put together with the police in Edmonton, Alberta.

The cops would identify some of the area's neediest children. They weren't just poor children, but they could be. Sometimes they were abused children and sometimes they were hungry or neglected. Kids that the community had forgotten.

The cops knew who they were. They would see them on the streets. Sometimes they would have to come to their houses, often times more then once.

Huddy organized a little mini-service. He called on some friends and, eventually, a few corporate sponsors. Then, each year either on Christmas eve or Christmas day, he would hop into the patrol car with a couple of cops and drop off bags of Christmas cheer. It might be a toy. It might be clothes. Sometimes it was something as simple as the fixings for a hot meal.

When he told Ray about the good deed, Ray quickly took it for his own. He called Rocco Diina, then an underling at police headquarters, now Police Commissioner, and the Buffalo cops were quick to respond.

The first year, they serviced about 18 families, but Ray never forgot their faces. As the years went by -- and Huddy moved on -- Ray carried on. Each year the program grew.

Last year the cop on the ice and the cops on the streets collected enough for 47 families. Today, it will be 104.

"I kind of laugh when I see these things on TV and people are asking for money to feed people overseas," Ray said Thursday. "I'm sure it's needed, but I don't think people have any idea of how many hungry people there are right here in Buffalo.

"Some of these kids, you look into their faces and you know they don't get enough to eat. There are some out there that only get one meal a day."

And there are some that never have warm clothes or a toy to call their own. There are some more who just don't have anyone who cares. The police know them. They've been in their homes. They've seen the neglect. Sometimes an agency helps them. Sometimes they get a little more care around Christmas or some other holiday, but most times they're just the kids of the streets.

Area Target stores have come on board and so has Tops. A friend of Ray's, Jim Goodwin, also has taken it to heart and works all year long to line up gifts, especially gifts of cash and food.

Then there are the police.

"You know it's like anything else," Ray said. "You hear one bad thing about one guy and immediately everyone thinks the worst of everyone, but there's a lot of great guys out there, guys who really care about these people. That's what makes it work. The cops know who really need help because they see them everyday."

Without Huddy, Ray soldiered on alone for a little while, but bit by bit his teammates asked to help. "This year we've got 10 (active players) and two of the (Sabres) alumni," he said. "It's our largest group yet.

"The guys see these kids and their situation and it really impacts them as much as it does the kids," he said. "They come back from this and they talk about it for days. I think we get more out of it than they do. We have so much and I think we tend to take it for granted. This is a real dose of reality for some of them and I know it affects them."

The odd thing about that is the larger the program gets, the more Ray and Sabres Community Development Coordinator Ken Martin have tried to downplay it.

"Sometimes you walk in and you know the parents, or whoever's there, is a little embarrassed," he said. "The kids don't care, they just see it for what it is, a gift and they're just happy to have it, but sometimes the adults, well, you can see it in their faces.

"There's one woman out there, they call her grandma, and every year she takes in about five or six kids. Every year, the kids are different."

Funny, you can see how it affects Ray too. There's pride, pride in the fact that he's able to make a difference in the community just because of his fame, but a little embarrassment too. He isn't really comfortable with the attention it brings.

"You wonder where it will go after I'm gone," he said. "I mean I'm always going to want to try and I plan on living here after I'm done (playing), so I'm always going to be around, but you wonder if one of the guys will just pick up the ball and keep it going.

"Charlie kind of passed it down to me and I'd like to be able to get someone else interested enough so that he takes over when I'm finished (playing)," Ray said. "I'm hoping one of the guys will want to make it his own."

It's not that Ray will stop caring, but it's a fact that when you're no longer a celebrity in this town, sponsors aren't nearly as quick to listen.

That's why Ray wants someone else to eventually step forward and you can almost bet it will happen. This year, Curtis Brown is getting involved, so is Jason Woolley. James Patrick, Vaclav Varada, Erik Rasmussen, Martin Biron, Rhett Warrener, Geoff Sanderson and Michal Grosek. By and large that's a pretty young group and a pretty good group. Surely someone will emerge to keep it all together.

Ray did.

That's why when they load those bags into the patrol cars today and carry them throughout the city, you can't help but feel that one or more of them will be touched by the plight of others.

"It won't always be, but I think someone will," Ray said. "I think Charlie knew I would. He wasn't here that long, but I always tell the guys he was one of the finest people I ever met in the game."

There will come a time when someone in this town will say the same thing about Rob Ray. It may be a hockey player, it may be a kid who has a toy, a sweater or a warm meal for Christmas, but it will definitely be someone, likely more than one.

Rob Ray has a lot of friends.

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