Wednesday December 12, 2012 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
Two-year-old Zachary Mazurczak is all smiles as Buffalo Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta helps Santa bring a little Christmas cheer early. Zachary was one of 35 children Kaleta, an Angola native and resident of Hamburg, hosted as part of his HITS Foundation’s annual holiday initiative to support local families in need on Saturday (Dec. 8) at Headstart in Cheektowaga. (Photo courtesy of Matt Chandler/HITS Foundation)
Patrick Kaleta and his Buffalo Sabres teammates may be locked out by the National Hockey League, but the Angola native remains locked in on using his status as a professional hockey player to help him assist and bring a smile to those in need.
He’s not letting the work stoppage derail the events planned by his HITS (Helping Individuals To Smile) Foundation. In fact, he was looking forward to Saturday (Dec. 8) afternoon’s event with a measure of exuberance.
Kaleta and his foundation’s supporters and representatives put on the third annual event to provide Christmas for underprivileged children. This year, it was held at Headstart on Dick Road in Cheektowaga, the site of a pre-school education program.
The event has moved locations all three years, starting in Kaleta’s hometown and moving to Springville last year, in order to get to as many children in need as possible in the Western New York area.
“It’s draining with the NHL news on the lockout, but I’m big in getting out in the community so even though I’m not playing hockey, I’m still going to be productive and give back to the community as much as I possibly can,” Kaleta said.
The foundation puts on events throughout the year, including a number of Kaleta appearances during the offseason and a summer golf outing fundraiser, but having an event around Christmas gives this one a little extra special meaning for Kaleta.
Thirty-five children as part of 14 families chosen as the most in need by the Headstart program were treated to activities such as decorating cookies and making Santa Claus masks, before Old Saint Nick made a visit to give out presents to the youngsters. The families were also given gift cards.
“It really puts things in perspective,” Kaleta said. “Personally, I like Christmas; it’s my favorite time of year. Whether it’s buying gifts, getting gifts, giving gifts or just the atmosphere in general, I think it’s important for everyone to have that same opportunity and experience.”
Melanie Johnson, director of the Headstart in Cheektowaga, was impressed with all that the event provided these children and their families, even beyond just the gifts. She noted that the children were given activities that aided in their school readiness functions and would increase their abilities.
“It’s a difficult time for many families and a difficult time of year to be going through it,” Johnson said. “It was a fabulous event and so well organized.”
Johnson added that a moment epitomizing the day and how thankful everyone was just to be involved came when a youngster opened a gift and believed it was only a box but was just happy to have it. Of course, the box had something inside — a Tonka Truck.
“He was so thrilled just to take the wrapping paper off,” she remarked. “The simplest things can make these kids happy.”
Kaleta said the foundation continues to plan other projects to make similar children just as happy and he also hopes for progress soon on an ambitious plan to build an ice arena in Springville. For now, he was trying to focus on the holiday event.
“It’s a slow going process, but we’ve spent hours upon hours on certain things and hopefully in the near future we’ll hear some news,” Kaleta said of the ice arena project.
“It’s like the season — you focus on one game at a time and then you go forward,” added the physical checking line forward and penalty-killing specialist, who’s recorded 50 points (26 goals) and 434 penalty minutes in 267 career NHL games.
As for the season, the gritty and at times pesky grinder signed a new multi-year deal with the Sabres but hasn’t been able to get back on the ice with the franchise because of the lockout that has stretched out now for several months, although this week the sides are back at the bargaining table.
Kaleta has tried to stay in the best shape possible getting out on the ice three times a week with fellow Sabres who are in town. He also trains at Worlds Gym in Hamburg with former Sabre Jay McKee, who’s kind of taken him under his wing.
Other than that, Kaleta is simply trying to keep busy while waiting out the negotiations between the NHL and union representatives.
On Monday, the NHL cancelled games through Dec. 30 as time begins to run out before the season is at risk of being lost.
He’s had more to do of late in preparation for the holidays with his family and friends, and than he’s always making time for his Legos and sports card collecting hobbies.
“I’m glad it’s Christmas time, so you’re always busy running around doing something,” Kaleta said.