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NHL Stadium Series

Gardiner thrilled to be playing Stadium Series game at Annapolis

Maple Leafs defenseman's grandfathers served in U.S. Navy

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- As Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner skated, his mother, Jill, sat in the stands, tapped her phone and found two photos -- one from the 1940s, the other from the 1950s, black and white and grainy.

Here was Jake practicing at the Brigade Sports Complex at the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday. The Maple Leafs will play the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS, SNE, SNO, SNP, NHL.TV).

Each of Jake's grandfathers served in the U.S. Navy -- the late Bill Gardiner during World War II, Del Jensen during the Korean War.

"Your grandparents tell you stories as a kid," said Jake, who grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. "Don't know too much about it, but they fought for our country. … Even today, people that fight for our country, it's something pretty special that they do for us to help us live the way we do."


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The first photo was of Grandpa Bill in 1944, second from the left in a row of four sailors in uniform.

"He looks a lot like Jake too," Jill said. "Isn't that cool?"

Grandpa Bill was in flight training then; the family still has his flight jacket. Uncle John, his brother, was a pilot and flew in France.

The second photo was of Grandpa Del, relaxing in a chair in uniform. He served from 1951-54, spending his first two years stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and the last two aboard the U.S.S. Bennington, an aircraft carrier that operated in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

On the morning of May 26, 1954, while the ship cruised about 75 miles off Rhode Island, the fluid in one of her catapults exploded, killing 103 crewmen and injuring 201 others, according to Grandpa Del happened to sleep in and was not in the air intelligence office where he worked.

"Where we were not operating in a war zone at the time, I did not have to be in the air intelligence office during flight quarters," he wrote in a message relayed by Jill. "The walls of the air intelligence office were totally collapsed. My sleeping quarters were in the island of the ship. That area was not damaged from the explosion."

The photo of Grandpa Del was flanked by two newspaper clippings. Gwen Jensen, Jake's late grandmother, was at her job as a bookkeeper in Minnesota when she heard the news of the explosion over the radio. She was "almost in a state of collapse" and excused from work until she heard from her husband.

A day later, she received an eight-word telegram:

"I am fine. Don't worry. Letter will follow."

She later received a phone call.

"People died in the same area where he would have been, so there was a chance he would have been in that area," Jake said. "Kind of just lucky, I guess."

Grandpa Del, 86, is now a huge Maple Leafs fan. He will watch the game at home in Plymouth, Minnesota.

"I think it's magical, really, to be part of this and play at that stadium," said Gardiner's father, John. "It's pretty special for everybody."

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