Playing on NHL ice is memorable enough for any young hockey player, but for six-year-old Brayden McDaniel, the best part came after he and his teammates were finished with their Future Jackets intermission game.
Brayden, who plays for the Dayton Stealth hockey team, took a spin on the Nationwide Arena ice, an unforgettable experience on its own. While the Zambonis circled the ice surface, McDaniel - Sunday afternoon's Future Jackets Star of the Game - sat down for an interview with Blue Jackets in-arena host Mike Todd that turned out to be anything but ordinary.
Staff Sergeant Haywood McDaniel, Brayden’s father, had returned home from a tour of duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — but Brayden didn’t know that yet. Not until Todd told him to turn around for a special surprise.
“It was amazing," Brayden said. "I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Haywood walked on to the home bench, arms wide open, almost to Brayden's disbelief. It was a touching moment, and Brayden's first and only reaction was to embrace his father and officially welcome him home.
Brayden loves hockey, Haywood said, and Haywood’s unit is originally from the Columbus area. So, he and wife Amanda decided that a Blue Jackets game was the perfect place for this surprise, although the timing wasn’t quite perfect. Haywood was originally scheduled to come home the day before the game, but his schedule changed and he got to come home a few days early.
But the McDaniels stuck with their plan. After five days of hiding out at his mother-in-law’s house, Haywood finally got to see the plan come to fruition on Sunday with an added bonus: he got to see Brayden play hockey in a pretty special setting.
As the day went on, he admittedly got a bit nervous.
“I thought, hopefully he recognizes me, hopefully he’s not nervous in front of all these people, hopefully he sees me and wants to come to me,” said Haywood. “The nerves...it’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced."
The plan went off without a hitch. As soon as Brayden turned and saw his father, his face lit up brighter than the arena video board. And of course, the Nationwide Arena crowd stood and roared its approval for a safe arrival home, and also to say 'thank you' to Haywood for his service.
“It was amazing, the crowd was really supportive and it means a lot to me,” said Haywood. “It makes me appreciate this even more."