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Area hockey lovers rally around ill coach

His mind remains sharp.

Fred Korey still can joke with his family, get emotional about everyone's efforts to help him and express his will to beat Lou Gehrig's disease.

But he communicates with a marker on a dry-erase board. Korey can't talk now. And he's not on the ice, where he belongs, as executive director of Hasek's Heroes youth hockey program.

Korey, 46, recently spent five weeks in Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, much of it in intensive care after a series of physical setbacks.

The disease, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.

It's the same disease that claimed his father, Fred C. Korhummel, at age 57.

With marker in hand, Korey made it clear how he feels about what has happened to him:

"All of these are little setbacks -- part of life. I look around. Other people don't have it as nice as I do. I'll battle each setback until I win."

Now others are returning the favor for the man who has helped put hundreds of disadvantaged kids on the ice to play his favorite game.

Dominik Hasek's hockey organization, the Buffalo Sabres and the Western New York youth hockey world are working together to organize a benefit at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in HSBC Arena's Harbor Club. Hundreds of people -- including Hasek -- are expected at the benefit, which will help pay for Korey's extensive drug and medical treatment, including home health care.

Korey hopes to attend.

Hockey has defined much of Korey's life. He played for the Buffalo Junior Sabres. He was captain of the Canisius College team. As an adult, he coached youth hockey. And when he became ill last fall, he was running Hasek's Heroes and coaching the City Honors High School club team.

He has made a huge mark with Hasek's Heroes.

"Basically, he just poured his heart and soul into this organization," board member and friend Fred Heinle said. "The last five or six years, he really dedicated his life to bringing hockey to kids who wouldn't have had a chance without this organization."

Five years ago, Hasek created a $1 million endowment for inner-city hockey, saying that although his family planned to move back to the Czech Republic some day, "my heart will always stay in Buffalo."

"Fred Korey was the person who nearly single-handedly made Dominik Hasek's vision a reality," said Ted Marks, Hasek's Heroes board chairman. "Dominik saw the need and then provided the resources, while Fred provided the hard work and compassion required to make it happen."

Korey's sister, Janice Curatolo, said her brother still can joke. Asked if he wanted to thank her for rushing to the hospital during one crisis, he wrote:

"Thanks, sucker -- Luv ya."

"He's still Freddie," she said later. "He's still who he is inside. He can still joke around."

Lou Gehrig's disease affected Korey's speech first. On Feb. 10, he was admitted to Mount St. Mary's to have a feeding tube inserted, before he suffered a setback.

Thursday, four days after his latest setback, he began walking again, strolling 220 feet down the hospital hall. He has gained more than 10 pounds from his low weight of 97. And on Thursday, he learned he would be going to a nursing home the next day.

Meanwhile, the amateur and professional hockey worlds are working overtime on Thursday's benefit. Auction items will include memorabilia signed by Hasek, other NHL paraphernalia, a suite for a Sabres game, gift baskets and a stay in a Florida condominium.

Tickets, at $25 apiece, are available at the Hockey Outlet in Wheatfield, the Pepsi Center in Amherst and the Bud Bakewell rink in Riverside.

Korey was asked how he feels about all those efforts.

"I am in awe," he wrote on his board. "I have a constant flow of tears. Every day. I did not realize how much people cared about me."

His wife, Maria, and their son, Freddie, 16, have been touched by all the love and support.

"The concern from family and friends has just been overwhelming," Maria said.

Those who know Korey can testify to his indomitable spirit since he's been sick. In early February, he still was running Hasek's Heroes and coaching his City Honors team, even when he could communicate only by writing on his board.

"I know he has the drive to live," Curatolo said. "He knows he will be around some day when they find the cure."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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