As coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Todd Richards is used to giving orders. But on a recent crisp fall afternoon, he was more than happy to be on the receiving end of someone else's direction.
Richards, assistant coaches Craig Hartsburg and Dan Hinote, players Jared Boll, Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski and other members of the Blue Jackets organization helped construct a home for United States Air Force veteran Kelley Flanagan and his family through a program with Habitat For Humanity-MidOhio.
Neither Richards nor the players professed much acumen with tools. But there they were on Oct. 30 about 30 miles east of Columbus in Newark, Ohio putting up siding and installing railings.
"I follow directions really well," Richards said. "It's nice to get out of the rhythm of the hockey timeline day in and day out and the grind of it. It was a beautiful day. There were lots of people there. It was a great cause and everyone was enjoying the time helping this family."
Flanagan and his wife, Tera, have three daughters – Hailie, 8, Kylie, 4 and Kelera, 1. The youngest has a physical disability and some respiratory problems, Kelley Flanagan said.
Members of the Blue Jackets organization helped construct a home for United States Air Force veteran Kelley Flanagan and his family through a program with Habitat For Humanity-MidOhio. (Photo: Columbus Blue Jackets)
"Our living arrangements aren't the greatest," he said. "They're professional hockey players. I never thought they'd want to take time out of their day to help someone like us. We're just very, very blessed."
The feeling was mutual among the Blue Jackets.
"Number one, it was an honor to be able to do that for everything he's done for us," Richards said. "It's part of our responsibility to our community and to people who serve in the military and allow me to come in and be a part of this game and do my job and for my family to have certain freedoms and certain liberties."
The Blue Jackets commitment to the veterans continued Saturday, when they played host to the New York Islanders on Military Appreciation Night. The Flanagans were among the team's guests as active and retired service members were recognized.
Players also wore camouflage-style warm-up jerseys that were sold at auction with proceeds split between the Blue Jackets Foundation and the USO of Central and Southern Ohio.
Flanagan didn't think his family would be able to afford a home, but by working with Habitat Mid-Ohio's Veterans Build program a 1,300-square-foot, four-bedroom house should be ready to occupy next month.
Veterans who qualify to be homeowners can receive up to $10,000 in mortgage reduction based on years of military service.
Part of the agreement is for the veteran to provide sweat equity, which is why Flanagan joined the Blue Jackets in doing work on his home.
Wisniewski spent most of his time applying siding.
"That was the first time I've ever done that," he said. "It was interesting. I think I did a fine job. I was actually getting into it. I was sweating by the end of it. I followed directions. It was pretty self-explanatory when you see it but at the same time you want to make sure when the wind blows it doesn't fall off."
Meanwhile, Boll and Johnson were tasked with placing a railing on the back steps. They thought they did a fine job but Wisniewski couldn't help but reveal their shortcomings as builders.
"They hung the back railing upside down – and they nailed it in," said Wisniewski, unable to suppress a laugh. "That's classic."
"It was Jack [Johnson]'s fault," Boll said. "He was the one in charge of where to put the pieces. I was just nailing them in."
Johnson, a defenseman, naturally offered a defense.
"They handed us a piece of wood and told us to put it on," he said. "They didn't tell us which way to go. [Boll] and I didn't notice one side was different than the other so we measured it and put it on straight at least.
"That's the first time either one of us has been on a construction site. The fact we put it on straight, we're pretty happy with that. "
Nonetheless, Flanagan was appreciative of their efforts on Habitat Mid-Ohio's first Veterans Build home.
"I'm very humbled by what they're doing for us," he said.
Actually, it was the Blue Jackets who felt privileged to be in the presence of Flanagan.
Both of Wisniewski's grandfathers fought in World War II so he understands the sacrifices service personnel such as Flanagan make.
"I have a real soft spot for the military," he said. "To be able to lend a hand and help out the community in Columbus in any way, especially the military, is nothing [compared] to what he took out of his life to defend his country.
"I'm probably more grateful for them to serve our country than they are for us come to build their house. It's our pleasure to help someone who's served in the military. He's done us a service. Helping for an hour so is the least we could do."
Even if that meant leaving their comfort zone for a day.
"I started putting up siding with Craig Hartsburg, Dan Hinote and [Wisniewski]," Richards said. "Then I went inside to see what my wife and Craig Hartsburg's wife were doing and they were insulating so I got relegated to putting some insulation in.
"I told the homeowner if anything ever goes wrong with the house I had nothing to do with it. It was probably a couple of players' fault."