If you're at a Blue Jackets game and go to the front row of section 209, you'll pretty much always find John Weidner, Fred Haefner and Mary Barker.
The three have sat together from the very beginning of the Blue Jackets franchise, forming a friendship that has stood the test of time from David Vyborny to David Savard, Kevin Dineen to Kevin Stenlund.
But that changed for one night Feb. 20 when Weidner was honored by the Blue Jackets as the night's Elk + Elk Military Salute honoree. Weidner got the chance to watch warmups from the Zamboni tunnel, stand next to Leo Welsh for the national anthem and be recognized by the crowd during a first period media timeout.
That also meant Weidner was given seats at the top of Section 102 for the game, a departure from his normal spot. That was fine for one night, though, especially as Weidner was greeted by someone he watched play a lot of hockey in Nationwide Arena when Rick Nash presented him an authentic Blue Jackets jersey with Weidner's name on it during the media timeout.
"It was fantastic," said Weidner, who had a group of nine people in attendance for the game. "It went great. I can't complain about anything because it was really great. Leo was really nice. I got Rick Nash to present the jersey. That was a trip, man. I watched every game he played in here almost. He was my favorite player. I said, 'This is great.'"
It was a fitting tribute for a Columbus native who has watched more hockey than just about anyone in the capital city. Weidner has been a hockey fan from the beginning, watching old minor league teams like the Columbus Owls and Columbus Golden Seals -- "We won like 14 games in three years," he said of the moribund Seals with a laugh -- before becoming a season ticket holder with the Columbus Chill.
Haefner was one, too, but the two didn't know each other until they by chance bought ticket packages next to one another as Nationwide Arena was being built. Soon, they'd find out they not only served in Vietnam, they were veterans of the same 9th Infantry Division.
"It was really strange because we sat here from day one," Weidner said. "I had seat 11 and he has seat 10. We didn't know about it until the second year, we had military appreciation night and we wore our hats and we got to talking - 'That's where I was,' and all that. It was real strange. It's a small world. I had no idea. He was a Chill fan, too, but he was at the other end of the rink so I didn't know him then."
The two have done more than watch hundreds of hockey games with one another. Last April, Weidner and Haefner were selected to join Honor Flight Columbus for one of its trips to Washington, D.C.
"It was fantastic. It really was," Weidner said of that experience, which honors our country's veterans with a trip to our nation's capital to visit the war memorials. "You can't believe how good it was."
Weidner was selected for the honor flight thanks to his service to our country. He was chosen in the draft eight months out of high school to head to Vietnam, where he was a member of the U.S. Army as a specialist. Weidner entered the army in March 1967 and was honorably discharged 20 months later; in the interim, he started at Fort Jackson in South Carolina before spending a year in the field in Vietnam from November 1967 to '68.
He spent the first four months in the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta, then eight months in the 4th Infantry Division in the Dak To area in the Central Highlands. Weidner received a Purple Heart for his actions as well as the combat infantry badge, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign and National Defense medals.
"I was just one of the guys, really," he said of his service. "There were so many of us there. When I went on that Honor Flight, I thought everybody got a Purple Heart (in Vietnam). No. There were 120 of us and 10 of us had the Purple Heart."
When he returned to Columbus, Weidner worked eight years for Western Electric and 31 with Buckeye Shapeform, a machining manufacturer, before retiring. He also spent a fair amount of time watching hockey, the last 20 years from his familiar perch in Nationwide Arena.
"I've always been a hockey guy," said Weidner, who has already renewed his tickets for next year. "I went from the minor leagues to here. I've been in the same seat ever since. (My favorite memory) was probably making the playoffs for the first time. It was a long struggle for that. The first team was really a lot of fun, too."