"Good Guy'' Hockey Star Melts Tiny Hearts, Comforts Families At All Children's In St. Petersburg

Baily Walker dances across her hospital floor with the same grace as Vincent Lecavalier does when he's skating for the Tampa Bay Lighting.

Baily, a 5-year-old blond, who is suffering from leukemia, wants to be a ballet dancer. She has grace, blond-haired beauty, and an infectious personality that has the doctors at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg gushing over her every step as she gleefully dances and brings smiles to a place where smiles are few and far between.

Lecavalier, an NHL star who has been the Lightning captain for several years, committed $3 million to construct the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in 2007. He isn't an athlete who puts his name on a building and forgets about it. He is active and, being a local hero in the Tampa Bay region, he spends extra time at the hospital, often meeting with patients, some of whom are going to be spending several months, and maybe, the rest of their young lives there.

"Vinny has been with us since the beginning,'' says Sylvia Ameen, associate vice president of leadership for the All Children's Hospital Foundation. "He is dedicated to Tampa Bay and has done a lot of research on what we do here. He is dedicated to this hospital and we can always count on him.''

Lecavalier has been dedicated to the hospital since he became the best known face of the Tampa Bay hockey franchise. He regularly hosts families with children suffering from cancer at his private suite for Lightning games at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. He has used his name and his time to host charity events, including his annual Texas Hold Em' poker tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe where all proceeds go to the hospital. Lecavalier, a Montreal native who has made Tampa Bay his home, has often been the subject of trade rumors, but he says his heart is in Tampa Bay and he's putting his money where his mouth is.

Staying Close Helps Ability To Cope

As for Baily, she doesn't know much about hockey, but she has no doubts that her friend Vinnie is a really nice guy. She and most of the other patients – more than 200 kids registered at the unit since the opening in January – have met Lecavalier, who stops by the hospital and his unit often. She says he is fun to be around.

"I like him a lot,'' Baily says. "He plays with me and talks to me and he's a really good guy.''

Lecavalier's center occupies most of the seventh floor of All Children's Hospital. It includes 28 individual patient rooms and takes up more than 26,500 square feet. It also allows for accommodations for parents of patients and three Ronald McDonald houses are on site, including the largest Ronald McDonald House in the world, for parents who need to be near their children. Baily's mother, Britnie, lives in Vero Beach, but is able to stay at the hospital during her daughter's treatment.

"With the accommodations and the quality of care we have for children with blood or marrow transplants, we have the ability to offer superior care along with the chance to help these kids the best way we can,'' Ameen says. "Cancer can be devastating, no matter if it requires a bone marrow treatment or anything else. It's nice that the families can stay here while their kids are going through it.''

The hospital is brand new and state-of-the-art all the way. One of its most prominent features is a positive pressure air system that keeps the air completely purified on the seventh floor. The air purifying system allows children with weak immune systems due to chemotherapy to roam freely around the halls.

The kids decorate their rooms any way they want and delight in making the rooms into a second home. Baily has pictures of her favorite things all over her room and also has three hairpieces that she can use in case she wants to wear them after chemotherapy treatments. The floor also offers playrooms that are geared specifically to the kids and their abilities.

Making Chemo Easier

Baily's crisis began on April 16 when she was sitting in music class, never thinking she would be spending the summer in St. Petersburg. She was walking on her way out of class and, according to her mother, "zoned out.'' She walked into a wall and her teacher realized something was seriously wrong. Doctors soon discovered a problem with her bone marrow and her mother decided to send her to All Children's Hospital.

"I was terrified,'' Britnie says. "Baily thought it was her fault and she just wanted to go home. The first round of chemotherapy was tough, but the people here at All Children's made it easy and Baily is so much more comfortable.''

Baily keeps herself happy despite living away from her home and her friends. She's developing friendships with kids who are in a similar situation and she's making the best of it.

"She is never depressed,'' Britnie says. "She is always happy and always dancing. She provides strength for everyone here instead of the other way around.''

Dr. Gregory Hale, the director of hematology and oncology at All Children's, specializes in cancer and blood disorders, along with brain tumors and muscle tumors. He knew that Baily's low blood platelet count meant that there might be some more serious issues at hand.

Hale says that more than 80 percent of cancer victims are cured and that the Lecavalier Center is at the cutting edge of children's cancer treatment.

As for Lecavalier's personal commitment, you might not hear much about it. Lecavalier keeps a low profile when he isn't on ESPN's Top 10 plays of the night. He stops by the hospital often and makes sure to forge a personal relationship with the patients. He doesn't ask every local television station in town to make sure everything is on the nightly news; he prefers to do it quietly.

"This center is a blessing for us,'' Britnie says. "We are just so happy that this facility is here and, hey, just look at her. She's happy and smiling.''

Baily is dancing around the room, happy, smiling, and, despite her illness, looks like any other kid who is about to turn 5-years-old and knows nothing about ice hockey.

Jeff Berlinicke of Tampa is a freelance writer who has spent much of the last 15 years covering professional sports all over the Southeast United States. When not rooting for his favorite teams, he often can be found listening to Bruce Springsteen or teeing up on local golf courses. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Signup for Email Alerts