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Kaleta scores a winner with HITS Sabres winger starts his own charity

The money started rolling in. Patrick Kaleta merely had to write his name on a few hockey cards, and suddenly he had $5,000. Other companies were approaching Kaleta's father, Tom, eager to give him enormous piles of cash.

They quickly realized they were in a unique position. People wanted to be associated with the local kid who made good, and the kid wanted to help the locals. The next step was making the most of that opportunity.

It took a summer of long chats and even longer meetings, but the Kaletas have achieved their goal. Their HITS Foundation is a reality.

"I believe we can help a lot of people in the area," Patrick Kaleta said last week. "If I'm in a position where I can do that, I'm going to."

The Buffalo Sabres forward and his family have grand plans for HITS, which stands for Helping Individuals To Smile and incorporates his hard-checking reputation. The first goal is to build a multisport complex in Springville. Kaleta has already purchased land behind the Wal-Mart plaza on Route 219. His program will be similar to Hasek's Heroes, the charity launched by Sabres legend Dominik Hasek in which underprivileged kids can play hockey in the city.

"There's a lot of hard-working people out in the Southern Tier that could use the help, too," said Tom Kaleta, who raised his family in Angola and helped come up with the HITS acronym. "It kind of makes sense of what we're trying to do. It's not just helping that young child play ice hockey or soccer or whatever. The other person beside them that's going to be smiling is the parents because they possibly weren't able to afford to have them play the sport or be involved."

The 23-year-old hockey player has a history of helping his communities. He would visit schools with his mother, Sandy, who works with handicapped children. He continued the charity work while playing junior hockey in Peterborough, Ont. After his only full season with the Sabres' minor-league affiliate in Rochester, he was named the team's Man of the Year.

"My mom and dad gave up a lot of things," he said. "They could have been going on vacations and having a grand old time, and instead they'd drive me and my brother to hockey practice, and they put my sister through lacrosse. St. Francis [High School] isn't the least expensive thing in the world, either. They've made a lot of sacrifices, and I realize that I'm in a position where I can help people have the opportunity to play hockey and have the same dream and goal to play for the Sabres.

"Growing up and seeing firsthand what people go through, I know Buffalo's not the most money-crazy city in the world. There's a lot of hard-working people here, and kids deserve a chance like I had."

Kaleta originally was content to help other causes. He donated his autograph money to The Ride for Roswell and two area hospitals. His foundation came about unexpectedly. A local business approached Tom Kaleta and said it was interested in donating $40,000 to his son's charity -- which as of then hadn't even been dreamt up.

"We decided we'd better do something to keep the money in our area here and help whoever we can with it," Tom Kaleta said.

The complex is Springville is scheduled to have an ice rink and turf field. Tom Kaleta, whose brother Michael is Springville's building code enforcement officer, said the village had explored constructing a rink before abandoning the idea. The building would deliver a sheet of ice to an area that's lacking.

"I know firsthand that kids from out there have to drive to Hamburg, West Seneca, even out to Olean to get ice time," said Patrick Kaleta, who played youth hockey for Hamburg and West Seneca. "I think it'd be a nice spot out there, and it'd be good for the community.

"Hopefully, we can get it going really soon."

For now, Patrick Kaleta will have to leave the charity work to his family. He'll be a little busy with the NHL season starting this week. The Sabres begin the regular season Saturday when Montreal visits HSBC Arena.

Coach Lindy Ruff hopes the fans see a different Kaleta. The right winger was known primarily for hitting during his first two seasons, but Ruff wants a more complete player this year.

"He's got good skill," Ruff said. "He's on penalty killing, which tells you he's a smart player. He's a great skater. I want him to think hockey.

"He's had to survive and probably got here because he had to think, 'I've got one crack at it. I've got to antagonize and I've got to hit people.' I still want that, but I want him to be able to play, too.

"I don't want him taking himself out of the play on a consistent basis looking for big hits."

Ruff sat Kaleta down after an exhibition game in Detroit and showed him three video clips. They were examples of what not to do. The winger could have corralled the puck, but instead he ignored it and tried crushing the opponent.

Old habits die hard, as Kaleta did the same thing the next game in Washington. But he did it only once and immediately recognized his mistake. He also was one of the best players on the ice, scoring once and blocking nine shots.

"It's awesome that he wants me to be like that because it gives me something to strive for, to be the player that my coach wants me to be," Kaleta said. "I'm going to try my best."

He's doing the same with the foundation. Once it's up and running, he'll be fine if a youngster takes HITS to heart.

"I want to see some kid out there just running people through the boards and scoring goals and having fun," Kaleta said. "I was blessed to have this opportunity. I've had a lot of fun in my life so far, and I hope I can give someone that same chance."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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