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LAFONTAINE BREAKS GLOOM WITH HIS SPIRIT

Can it get any more depressing around here?

The Bills are 1-5 for the second time in four years and haven't been in the playoffs since 1999. Their offense is less entertaining than an infomercial. The Sabres haven't made the playoffs since 2001. We thought the NHL lockout might actually be a local anesthetic, only to find out they're losing in cyberspace.

Joe Mesi looks like he's finished. The University at Buffalo picked up its customary one victory in football and is going nowhere. Niagara Falls High figures to be a national basketball power, and star forward Paul Harris gets arrested. Right when you think the local scene can't get any worse, O.J. Simpson shows up unexpectedly.

I know the Bisons won a championship, but my idea of baseball in Buffalo is hot dogs, beer and belly shirts -- in reverse order, of course. Anyway, most people can't name the Herd's starting third baseman.

In my everlasting quest to accentuate the positive, I resorted to cheating Tuesday. I searched for someone who could see the bright side of a natural disaster, someone who would have the proper perspective and insight about sports and their relationship with daily life. I needed someone genuine.

I needed Pat LaFontaine.

One thing you can count on with LaFontaine is that, no matter your emotional depths, you'll always feel better after speaking with him. Sure enough, the former Sabres captain and Hall of Fame center came through in the clutch. LaFontaine was spreading his usual good will Tuesday while preparing for a triathlon Nov. 6 in Panama City Beach, Fla.

Of course, he's not swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles just for kicks. His incentive is helping sick children. He's trying to raise some $50,000 for Champions of Courage and its attempt to build interactive hospital playrooms across North America. He's competing for his late mother. She died in July at age 62 of heart failure, ironic considering heart is her son's greatest asset.

"I've never met anybody that didn't feel good about helping others," LaFontaine said by phone. "What I do now is directly inspired to the special kids I met in Buffalo. I'm just a conduit to their inspiration to try and build these rooms and give them a safe haven, an oasis they can call their own and just be a kid again."

Isn't that what sports are supposed to be about, an escape from the real world, an oasis that takes us back to our childhood? LaFontaine understood as much when he played, and now he knows more than ever. He found a more fulfilling life without big wallets and bigger egos.

A few years ago, he saw a 62-year-old nun compete in a triathlon in Hawaii, leading him down another avenue for his cause. A triathlon is no honey-do, but this should be like a family skate for him. He's biked 100 miles several times to raise money.

"I figured a 12- to 14-hour day of exercising is pretty hard," LaFontaine said, "but when you think of kids that are stuck in a hospital room, it's an easy day. There won't be any problem reaching back and doing this race."

Forget the Bills and Sabres. Take leftover time and money and spend both with your children. LaFontaine is. His two daughters and his son are playing sports, and he's racing around with them when he's not racing for thousands of kids he's never met. He's not running from problems. He's running toward them.

He's winning the game of life. It's the only game that matters.

"You realize when you're away there are so many things you can get passionate about and make a difference," he said. "I pinch myself every day. I have three healthy kids that I can be around and be part of their lives. How lucky am I?"
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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