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Leopold spreads smiles; Parents appreciate visits in hospital

It was 90 minutes into Jordan Leopold's visit to Women and Children's Hospital when a staffer suggested he and his friends end their Christmas rounds. The rest of the kids would be sleeping, many because their medications had kicked in.

Leopold insisted on continuing Friday's gift-giving tour.

"It's not always about the kids," the Sabres' defenseman said. "It's about the parents, too."

Leopold has been making monthly visits to the Buffalo care center for more than a year. He learned early that bringing a smile to a sick child is one thing, but brightening the day of heavy-hearted parents is an entirely different reward.

"You can see the parents light up when we come in the room, say hello and spend five minutes talking," Leopold said. "Sometimes when you're in the hospital, all you want is an ear. To go in there and listen to somebody if they want to talk about their hard times or what they're going through, it's interesting for us, and we're there also as a heartfelt extension of their family because you don't ever want to see people going through that."

The benefits of the visit became evident when Leopold, teammate Patrick Kaleta (both clad in elf costumes) and Buffalo's mascot, Sabretooth, reached the room of Peighton Hulin. Christina Cameron, the mother of the 2-year-old, immediately welled up while hugging Leopold and the much-needed visitors.

"Peighton's always here," said Cameron, dressed in a Sabres jersey and logoed winter hat. She and Peighton's father, Brian Hulin, continued a tearful embrace well after they had thanked the players and watched them walk to the room of the next patient.

"We appreciate the visit," Hulin said.

Sabres legend Rob Ray seconds Leopold's notion that charitable visits can do more for the parents than their kids. Ray and other members of the team's alumni association were scheduled to bring gifts, clothes and food to more than 40 families Saturday, a Christmas Eve tradition he and ex-teammate Charlie Huddy started in 1994.

"Give them what they need to have a Christmas because in most cases they normally wouldn't have a Christmas," said Ray, who has also frequented hospitals. "It's the smile on the parents' face that we see. They have to deal with it. I always say a lot of times in the kids' cases they don't know any different because they've been sick forever or since they were born.

"You notice it more when you're a father or a parent because you know when your kids get a cold you feel like hell because there's nothing you can do. You get a lot better feeling for what those parents go through and what the kids go through being in there."

Back in 1999, Ray worried that his program would end with his playing days. It's continued into his announcing career, one of many charitable acts performed by current and former players:

*Pat LaFontaine and his Companions in Courage Foundation will be in Ottawa's Eastern Ontario Children's Hospital next month to open the 15th Lion's Den, an interactive playroom that is also in Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Women and Children's Hospital.

*Thomas Vanek and Brad Boyes joined with the NHL Players' Association's Goals and Dreams, with Vanek donating $13,000 worth of equipment to Ice Sledge Hockey of Austria and Boyes supplying 50 sets of equipment to Skate for Kids in Welland, Ont.

*Leopold and Cody McCormick each send one family a month from the hospital to a Sabres game, supplying them with tickets, food vouchers and a visit to the locker room.

"It's just the thing you're supposed to do," Ray said. "It's life. The game is not reality. You walk in there and it's reality. We live in a fantasy world for most of our lives, and it's good that guys realize that there's two sides of it."

Leopold, a father of three, made secret solo visits to the hospital throughout last season. This year, he's been accompanied by Kaleta, McCormick and Nathan Gerbe, while Mike Weber has also expressed his desire to join.

"I don't want any recognition or anything, but I think it's important to give back some way," Leopold said. "I love spending time with kids and seeing smiles on their face. Not even all kids know what hockey is when you go there, but you end up leaving and you had Sabretooth with you, it makes an impact."

One of Leopold's favorite sights is an empty hospital room. A lot of kids on the oncology floor were able to get home this weekend. But the intensive care unit was packed. Leopold also saw several familiar patients, and he chatted with their parents about the onset of seizures or a relapse in symptoms.

Though it's tough to see the same families over and over, the repeat encounters have their moments. A boy named Manny, who was hospitalized for more than 200 days, used to help Leopold deliver gifts before finally going home. Leopold learned Friday that Nick, who was spending his 188th day in Women and Children's, could finally be heading to a group home this week.

Leopold told the boy he would see him there, too. He won't be carrying bags filled with Winnie the Pooh night lights, American Girl dolls, hockey cards and candy canes like he did Friday, but he will supply his visitors with something they need even more -- a smile.

"I've gotten several letters from family members that have seen us from the hospital or grandparents that heard we were there," Leopold said. "They send letters to the team saying thank you for stopping by, so obviously myself and a few other staff members and players are doing something right."