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Vietnam vets made surprising discovery as Jackets season-ticket holders

Elk & Elk military honoree served in same brigade, division in Vietnam as seat neighbor.

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider /

Fred Haefner and John Widener have long been hockey fans.

Prior to meeting each other as original Blue Jackets season-ticket holders in 2000, each was a season-ticket holder for the area's former minor-league franchises: the Columbus Checkers, Columbus Golden Seals, Columbus Owls and Columbus Chill.

That, however, wasn't the only thing they had in common. As it turned out, after getting to know each other as Jackets fans whose season tickets were located next to each other in Section 209, they also discovered a military bond.

"We just got to know each other at the games," said Widener, who served in Vietnam with the Army from November 1967 to November 1968. "Then, we had a military appreciation night and I wore this hat in, which is my 9th Division hat, and he wore his in. I said, 'Hey, I was in the third of the 47th [infantry]' and he said, 'I was too!'"

The commonality didn't stop there.

Each served during the Vietnam war in the late 1960s, with their times in combat almost overlapping. They were each stationed in the Mekong Delta region while in country, to start out, with Widener serving primarily on a boat that patrolled canals and Haefner patrolling on foot, carrying the radio for his platoon - along with a rifle.

"We sat together for I don't know how long before we even knew, about three or four years, that we were both in the Army," said Haefner, who was the Elk & Elk Military Salute honoree Mar. 24 at Nationwide Arena, when the Blue Jackets played the St. Louis Blues. "Then, all of a sudden we started talking about, 'Where were ya?' Oh, 'I was in Vietnam.' Turned out he was in the same place, about a year before me.' We were in the same brigade, same area."

Each went through harrowing experiences, as well.

Widener was wounded by a grenade during the Tet Offensive, which landed him in a hospital for about a month before he returned to the field to finish his tour of duty in northern Vietnam. Haefner was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with "V" device for valor, when his company engaged a large enemy force in combat Mar. 15, 1969 in Kien Hoa Province.

Haefner, a private first-class in the Army's Mobile Ravine Force, helped drag casualties to an evacuation site under live fire.

Neither of them, however, shares much about their tours of duty. They're passionate hockey fans and usually stick to hockey with their conversations.

"Vietnam veterans don't talk about Vietnam too much," Haefner said.

"He's been there and knows it, I've been there and know it, so there's no need to talk about it," Widener said. "Here, when the [hockey] game's over, we go home. There, when the game was over [each day], we didn't go home."

They came home eventually, though, and each returned to Columbus. Despite not knowing each other, they both dove right into hockey as fans, supporting whichever local professional teams were in town.

By the time the Blue Jackets were being formed in the late 1990s, they each made plans to become season-ticket holders. Prior to the Jackets' inaugural season in 2000-2001, they had a chance to pick out their own seats.

"We came out and signed up for our tickets two years before we had a team," Widener said. "So, in the summer of 2000, they let us pick out our seats [in Nationwide Arena]. I knew there was one seat left in the first row in 209. That was the section they gave us. So, I knew when I went in, if that was still there, I would get that one. I didn't know that Fred would be next door, though. He had the two seats next door."

They're still season-ticket neighbors to this day, with each waving to the crowd via the video board above the ice during Haefner's honoree night.

"That was amazing," said Haefner, who was given rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois's game-worn jersey afterward, as part of Fan Appreciation Night. "I got a little emotional with it. They did a world-class job with it."

Several weeks later, Haefner wore that jersey to Game 3 of the Jackets' first-round game against the Washington Capitals. As passionate fans, he and Widener are each enjoying the renaissance of the Blue Jackets, who qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.

They're each approaching 700 regular-season games attended and now have attended 10 playoffs games each.

"We're just happy to make the playoffs," Haefner said. "We had never been guaranteed three [playoff] games before. I'm taking it small steps at a time."

Widener is too, recalling the feeling he had watching the scoreboard clock wind down in the third period of a tied game April 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, eventually hitting zeroes to award the Jackets the point that clinched a postseason spot.

 "There were like four or five seconds left in that last game against Pittsburgh and I said, 'Man, we're in the playoffs again!'" he said. "That was a good feeling."

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