Pat LaFontaine, Pele, Roger Federer and Yao Ming are sports icons capable of headlining any event they attend. Yet when they come together next month for a historic global conference, the most well-known participant will be a man who's never scored a goal, won a Grand Slam or appeared in the Olympics.
The event leader will be Pope Francis, who can transfix a packed stadium with a simple wave of his hand.
The pope, however, is aware athletes also have legions of followers, so he has invited a select few to the Vatican for the first global conference on faith and sport. The three-day event, titled "Sport at the Service of Humanity," will bring together 150 athletes and executives from different religions and countries to discuss how faith and sport can work together to promote positive values, inspire youth and better serve humanity.
LaFontaine, the former captain and president of the Buffalo Sabres, will head to Rome with his wife, Marybeth, as part of a small delegation representing the NHL. The event will be held Oct. 5-7 and includes an opening ceremony with the pope, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
"It's a tremendous honor," LaFontaine said by phone Wednesday. "I'm excited to be a part of this summit and conference that they're having at the Vatican on sports and faith and service for humanity. I think it's going to be a tremendous opportunity to sit down with all different faiths and delegations from different sports and talk about the impact that sports has and faith has.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
LaFontaine received the invite in part because of his Companions in Courage Foundation. More than 50,000 pediatric patients, including those in Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo, benefit from the foundation every year. LaFontaine was a regular visitor to hospitals during his playing days.
"I've always said that playing hockey was a blessing for me, and it's really been a steppingstone to a purpose in life and what's really important," LaFontaine said. "I think that's giving back in service, and that's something I've always felt very strong about."
The Vatican also believes sports can help people and strengthen communities, as evidenced by the "Declaration of Principles" it has established for the conference:
*Compassion - Use the power of sport to help others.
*Respect - Use sport to build trust and understanding.
*Love - Sport is for all.
*Enlightenment - Sport has the power to transform lives and build character.
*Balance - Sport has the power to help us make the most of ourselves.
*Joy - Sport, above all, is about enjoyment.
"I think it says it all," LaFontaine said. "If you look at the principles that they talk about, they're extremely important in our society today."
In addition to having an audience with the pope and receiving a tour of the Vatican, LaFontaine and his fellow attendees will meet in themed breakout sessions and full assemblies to discuss how faith and sport can leverage their combined power to make the world better.
"There's going to be a lot of sharing about what sports has done and faith," LaFontaine said. "When you look at the principles that are around sports and faith, I think there's an opportunity to reach the next generation. To combine the two together, there's a tremendous opportunity to be impactful.
"Making things better for the next generation, you don't get that opportunity very often. I think it's a wonderful opportunity and a great thing that we're going to be doing."
In the meantime, LaFontaine will continue to work for the NHL in its New York office. He says he enjoys his role as vice president of hockey development and community affairs, which he resumed in March 2014 after leaving the Sabres.
"I'm part of a lot of exciting initiatives on the development side and growing the game, and I'm really enjoying it," LaFontaine said. "I'm keeping busy and enjoying the city. It's been fun. I've enjoyed the challenge."