Busy summer for Kaleta as he readies for 2011-12 season
BY: Michael J. Petro | August 31, 2011
Patrick Kaleta can confidently say that he has never been as focused during an offseason as he has been in preparing for the start of the upcoming 2011-12 National Hockey League season.
But that doesn’t mean that the Buffalo Sabres forward didn’t take time from his training regimen to support local charitable causes and make celebrity appearances in his Western New York hometown. He’s also been busy continuing to raise funds for his Helping Individuals to Smile (HITS) Foundation.
In fact, most people who were out and about around events in the Southtowns of Buffalo this summer enjoyed plenty of opportunities to see the Angola native and former St. Francis High School hockey player.
When he wasn’t at the newly named First Niagara Center, formerly HSBC Arena, working out five days a week and on-ice for four of them, Kaleta, who is entering his sixth season as a professional, was making an appearance at such places as a camp, 5K race, golf outing, ball game or out leisurely.
On the ice, Kaleta, the hit of the Sabres checking line, is known for his feistiness and physical play, but in his down time, he wants to be regarded as someone who gives back to the community and is accessible as a role model.
As he approaches a very important season in his career and one that’s being eagerly awaited by many Sabres fans, the 25-year-old Kaleta remains driven to be an influential part of the community.
“I know how important it is to get out in the community and help out,” said Kaleta at his HITS Foundation’s second annual golf outing on Aug. 22 at Brierwood Country Club in Hamburg.
“This is just one of the events that specifically benefits my foundation,” he added. “But I’m all around in the community and have fun doing it. I also know how cool it was for me to see Sabres around when I was younger.”
Kaleta’s charitable ways
Even before his rise to the NHL, Kaleta was known for charitable work, being named the 2006-07 American Hockey League Man of the Year for his community service during the first of two part-time seasons he spent with the Rochester Americans.
A few years into the NHL, he developed his own way to give back to those less fortunate with the HITS Foundation. Its aim is to provide an opportunity for youth to participate in an organized sport such as hockey by offsetting the expense of doing so.
Among the many endeavors of the foundation has been working with both Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Cradle Beach Camp, which services disabled and disadvantaged youth.
Now, along with a dedicated group of volunteers, Kaleta plans to construct a multi-million dollar ice arena and sports complex in Springville. He chose that location because of the need there for a facility such as this and it was in keeping with his Southtowns roots.
Kaleta’s father, Tom, was born in the Southern Tier in Holland, while his uncle, Mike, is Springville’s building inspector.
The golf tournament has become important in raising the capital needed to construct the Springville facility, which will also include, in addition to an ice rink, a “basketball court, a turf field, pro-shop, snack bar, a place to house the HITS Foundation offices and educational rooms, Mike Kaleta told Metro Group Newspapers last month.
In its second year, the HITS golf outing generated approximately $25,000, thanks to a full slate of 138 golfers coming out to support the cause, several of whom were current and former teammates of Kaleta. This year’s event yielded an additional $5,000.
“It’s an amazing feeling when you see everyone here for your foundation and supporting the same cause that you are,” Patrick Kaleta said. “Quite a few people have wanted to associate themselves with the foundation and it’s been a lot of fun.”
“Overall, I think it’s been a huge success,” he added. “We’re building it up every year and I think this tournament was definitely a step up.”
Breaking ground on the Springville facility project has begun but it’s certainly a work in progress, according to Kaleta. He said he stays in contact with project coordinators, like his Uncle Mike, but is unsure of the time line for construction.
“It’s a long process and we have people working on it continuously day in and day out,” Kaleta said. “We know the sooner the better and we’re working our hardest to get it done.”
His focus has not been solely on the building of the facility. He’s had plenty to do when away from the arena during the summer months.
In Hamburg alone, he’s appeared at the Run the `Burg for Autism in June, participated in the Character Chase 5K, running along with a few Sabres teammates, and appeared at the town’s Woodlawn Beach Adventure Camp in July, before hitting the links at Brierwood in August.
He’s also hosted the inaugural Kicking for Kids youth soccer tournament in West Seneca and thrown out the first pitch at the inaugural Buffalo Entertainment District Night during a Buffalo Bisons’ baseball game in June, both in support of his foundation.
Excited for hockey season
As excited as Kaleta gets about his community involvement, he may be even more amped up about the upcoming NHL season and the Sabres prospects for success.
The Sabres went through somewhat of a rebirth late last season and into the offseason with the purchase of the team by Terry Pegula. A billionaire, who himself is an avid fan of hockey and the Sabres, Pegula has not let money or lack of resources get in the way of building what he hopes will be a Stanley Cup contender and eventually a champion.
Through trades and free agency, Pegula has allowed for the acquiring of a number of impact players, along with rebuilding the players’ locker rooms and amenities within the arena.
“What’s there not to say about what this organization has been doing,” Kaleta said. “It’s exciting, awesome and positive. Bringing in amazing players like that gives you even more hope. Having a great owner who wants the best for the team, for you individually and for the franchise, it’s quite a honor to be playing for someone like that.”
The 6-foot, 200-pound oft-injured bruiser also has something to prove as he approaches the final year of a two-year contract, his second pact since first signing with the Sabres after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2004 entry draft.
“Besides being at the arena every single day during the week working out and skating four times a week, I’m really focused on what I’m eating, too, so I have to say this is the most focused I’ve been overall in any offseason,” Kaleta noted.
One of his main goals coming into this season is to stay away from injuries. It’s been well-documented just how frustrating it has been for Kaleta to miss 89 games over his first three full seasons in the NHL. Some have been a result of his rough and tumble play; others just plain bad luck.
Changing his style a bit to avoid injury may be difficult as Kaleta’s built his game around being an agitator and the team’s spark plug. He even made the Hockey News’ Top 10 Most Hated Players, coming in at No. 2 in the publication’s editorial.
“I hope to stay healthier,” Kaleta said. “I’ve been more diligent with that than I’ve ever been in my hockey career (coming into this season).”
He’s also focused in on improving his offense. Kaleta has recorded 21 goals and 19 assists in five seasons, three of which he played exclusively with the Sabres. He enjoyed somewhat of an offensive breakout season in 2009-10 with 10 goals, but his momentum was thwarted by missing 27 games due to injury. His numbers fell last season as he equaled his five assists from the year prior but only scored four times in 51 games.
Last season, Kaleta did score a game-winning goal in a first round playoff series with Philadelphia that the Sabres eventually lost in seven grueling games. It was his second appearance in a playoff series and second career goal of the postseason. The year before, the Sabres were upset by Boston in a first-round, six-game series.
“I just want to be more of an all-around player and be more of a threat offensively,” he noted.
Hometown kid makes good
Kaleta admitted that it’s not always easy being the “hometown kid,” and dealing with the expectations that come along with it, but he makes sure not to give anyone anything extra about him to scrutinize.
First and foremost, he wants to be a role model and not lose sight that with fame comes responsibility. Kaleta stays away from the image of a self-serving professional athlete. Instead, he tries to provide opportunities because of the opportunity provided for him to play in the National Hockey League.
His work on and off the ice has come to embody the City of Buffalo’s mentality of being blue collar and gritty yet the first to be kind to others. That attitude has worked so far as most of the off-ice talk about Kaleta has centered around his good deeds and charitable efforts.
“You learn what to do and what not to do,” Kaleta said. “You just have got to stay focused on what you’ve got to get done. The reason you do all of these things is that your a hockey player and you can’t lose track of your place.”
Kaleta’s next big appearance locally was hockey related as the Sabres reported to training camp in mid-September for the preseason. Buffalo then hit the road, traveling overseas for the NHL’s season opening international showcase, which begins Thursday, Oct. 7 in Helsinki, Finland against Anaheim. The next day, the Sabres will play in Berlin, Germany against Los Angeles.
This will be the first opportunity for Kaleta to exhibit that the offseason work not only bettered him as a person, but also a hockey player.