Whenever I think about Ian Laperriere, I also immediately think about a little girl named Ellie Rolfs.
You see it all the time and it's still a good thing: athletes visiting sick kids on team outings, athletes giving money to sick kids, athletes saying all the right things about perspective when talking about sick kids. But, really, that's usually as far as it goes. These guys are busy, under a lot of pressure, and have families and troubles of their own.
"Lappy" had all of the above -- and still does -- when he played with the Colorado Avalanche. But he found time -- lots of it -- to give to Ellie, who in 2008 was diagnosed at age 2 with Stage IV Widely Diffuse Anaplastic Wilm's Tumor -- an aggressive, rare form of pediatric kidney cancer.
Following the diagnosis, this little girl spent 90 days in the hospital, received 40 blood transfusions, had a tumor removed from her lungs, underwent more than a dozen high-radiation treatments, and had yards of tubes anchored to her frail body.
But you want to talk about hockey tough?
Ellie today is two years in remission, her once bald head now covered by beautiful long, blonde hair.
"I'm not even close to her on the toughness side," Laperriere said recently. "Not even close." This from a guy with a deserved reputation as a warrior who will do whatever it takes to help his team win, even if it means stopping shots with his face.
Ellie liked to watch the Avalanche during her illness, and the guy with the crooked nose, the guy they called "Lappy" on the TV, was her favorite. He blocked shots, he fought with guys half a foot taller, he practically danced a little jig after scoring a goal, and he had an endearingly funny French accent and liked to tell jokes with it.
Yup, Lappy was her favorite all right. When word got back to him about Ellie and her situation, the veteran right winger immediately reached out to her family. He arranged for her to visit the Avs' locker room, but she was shy around her hero. Not the next time, though.
There hasn't been a day in Lappy's playing career when he didn't have a nick or cut on his face, and when Ellie spotted one during her next visit, she took out one of her Dora The Explorer band-aids and put it on his wound. Too bad Ellie didn't have any Kleenex handy, because her gesture brought tears to the eyes of a lot of people in the dressing room -- Lappy included.
Laperriere spent hundreds of dollars on toys and clothes for Ellie, and visited her in the hospital every chance he got. He recruited many other teammates as well, and from there Ellie and the Avs had a mutually beneficial relationship. She was buoyed by their encouragement, and all through the Avs' miserable 2008-09 season, Ellie's locker room visits cheered everyone up.
Laperriere left Colorado in July 2009 to sign with Philadelphia, but he remains in regular contact with Ellie and her family. She faces future challenges from her condition, but is living a reasonably normal, happy life.
The gritty winger has been facing his own struggles: he hasn't played since June 2010 because of concussion symptoms caused by a blocked shot to the face from New Jersey's Paul Martin in a first-round playoff game. It was the second shot Lappy took in the head that season. He suffered a broken orbital bone and needed 70 stitches, but he returned to play for the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final vs. Montreal and Stanley Cup Final against Chicago. By the following September, though, his symptoms and vision problems left him unable to skate in training camp. He ended up sitting out the entire 2010-11 season.
While he's fought to recover his health and normal eyesight, his memories of Ellie's toughness have helped. "What I'm going through is nothing compared to what she's gone through," he says.
Since being sidelined, Laperriere has helped the Flyers' scouting department by working with prospects and minor leaguers, a main reason why he was awarded the NHL's 2011 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy as the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."
At the awards ceremony in Las Vegas last June, Laperriere said, "My kids are so excited. Plus, it's the only way I could have ever won a trophy in the NHL. Get two pucks to the face. That's the way I play. That's who I am. I don't regret anything. It's too bad I still have symptoms from it, but I wouldn't change anything."
Ellie Rolfs isn't the only kid out there Lappy has helped. He's deeply involved with The Ronald McDonald House and too many other charities to list here. He remains a devoted husband to his wife, Magali -- they've been together since their first date at age 15 -- and father to their sons Tristan and Zachary.
Laperriere, who has played with five NHL teams in his 16-year career, feels he's the luckiest man alive. There is nobody --
"Tremendous man, tremendous teammate," former Avalanche captain Joe Sakic says. And to kids in need like Ellie Rolfs, a tremendous friend.
That's why Ian Laperriere deserves to be SI's Sportsman of the Year.