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FANS ENJOY CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE WITH SABRES

Nine-year-old Paul DiLapo, sporting a freshly autographed Miroslav Satan jersey, grinned as he stood in line Sunday evening to race miniature stock cars against Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell and mascot Sabretooth.

Paul's father, Dan, was showing a little less enthusiasm. After spending the better part of the afternoon at the annual Sabres Carnival, the elder DiLapo was understandably tired. But it was a good kind of tired.

"I think it's nice for the kids," DiLapo, a Buffalo firefighter, said of the event. "It's nice of (the players) to give up some of their time to come out and do this."

DiLapo and his wife, Debbie, seemed perfectly content to escape the relentless television news, and instead let their son drag them around HSBC Arena. So did a few hundred other moms and dads, as their Sabre-crazy kids played pingpong across the table from defenseman Jay McKee, matched up against forward Tim Connolly at PlayStation or took on forward defenseman Alexei Zhitnik in a game of bubble hockey.

Elsewhere, Sabres players and alumni signed autographs, posed for pictures in the penalty box and raced video-simulated motorcycles during two separate sessions -- the first for season-ticket holders, and the second for any fan with $10 and the desire to get within hip-checking distance of Stu Barnes and Martin Biron.

Perhaps the day's most exciting moment -- notwithstanding each moment in which a child first spotted his or her favorite player -- came during one of the periodic question-and-answer sessions. Around 5 p.m., Dunkirk's Brian Madurski stepped up to the microphone and, after wishing the panel of players good luck on the coming season, turned and proposed to girlfriend Jill Sullivan.

The adults milling around the arena floor cheered. The children kept playing. The players, six hours into an eight-hour day of signing jerseys and posing with strangers, broke into applause. Madurski heard only Jill's voice, as she said, "Yes."

"I didn't look back," he said.

While the proposal came as a surprise to event organizers and Sullivan, the carnival did have a predetermined purpose: to raise money for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Western New York, the Buffalo Museum of Science's Camp Wee Explorer and the St. Catharines Minor Hockey Association.

Tom Sy, United Cerebral Palsy executive director, applauded the team's dedication to local charities, even as teams across the continent focus their giving toward relief efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I think it's nice that they stuck with that because I think all three charities are pretty worthwhile charities," Sy said. "Right now, everyone's sort of backed off the lobbying in respect for what's going on in New York City and the Pentagon, but I guess the potential's certainly there (for other charities to suffer)."

Like the DiLapos, defenseman Jason Woolley brought his sons to the carnival and welcomed the chance to spend a few hours away from talk of terrorism and war.

"Every time you turn the TV on you see it. You always want to know if there's been any changes: Have we moved in? Found any more people? Have we arrested anyone? Every day you're watching that ticker and you can't help it," Woolley said, sounding tired -- but in a good way.

"You're definitely interested, but it's nice to escape. The great thing about us not being involved in it is we can escape from it. I don't think we realize how fortunate we are."
e-mail: mgeschwind@buffnews.com

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