DETROIT — At three-feet, two-inches tall and weighing in at 42-pounds, coming to Joe Louis Arena all the way from Sacramento, California, the Red Wings welcomed their newest addition to the locker room, six-year-old Owen Provencher.
Owen has been a Wings fan since his parents, Heidi and Gary Provencher, brought him to his first hockey game at 18 months old when the Wings played the Sharks in San Jose. It is only fitting that his request to the Make-A-Wish Foundation would incorporate the Wings but it’s the connection his family has with goalie Jimmy Howard that is so unique.
"I've known Owen for quite some time, actually,” Howard said. “I've known his family pretty much all my life. His mom (Heidi) babysat me, his grandmother (Nancy Rudiger) was my sixth-grade teacher so there's a lot of history there."
Living in Ogdensburg, New York, at the time, Heidi watched over eight-year-old Howard and his sister. Being from the same small town, she watched Howard’s career blossom as he got older and supported him along the way. That support would later stem down to Owen, who got to spend some one-on-one time on the ice with his favorite player.
“It’s humbling,” Howard said. “It’s hard to put into words for me because I never expected to be where I am when I was young, just how far I’ve come and to be able to be somebody’s favorite player because I remember how I was when I was growing up and the guys I idolized, so it’s surreal.”
Owen — who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis two weeks after being born — was treated to the full player experience on Thursday. He got dressed with the Wings in the locker room, helped goalie coach Jim Bedard warm up the goalies and also competed in three-on-three drills with coach Mike Babcock’s team. Afterwards, he sat in a locker stall and faced a litany of cameras and microphones, fielding questions from the media about his experience.
“It’s great to have him down here, It energizes our team,” Babcock said. “I assume it was enjoyable for him. The more of that stuff we can do the more we will. It’s a good thing. I think all pro sport teams do this. It’s part of the opportunity you have, when you’re blessed and get to play a game like we do, you get to give back. These are one of the opportunities.”
Sporting a number 35 Wings jersey, Owen has played hockey for two years skating as a player but has aspirations of one day suiting up as a goalie, like Howard.
“He would love to play goalie,” Heidi said. “However, his mom wants him to keep playing ‘regular hockey.’ I want him doing skating positions for a little bit longer before he goes in the goal.”
Cystic Fibrosis is an inherited disease, one that Heidi was told her son would have a one-in-3,000 chance of inheriting when she was pregnant. In Owen’s case, mucus builds up in his lungs and can be difficult to breathe. Although there is no cure for cystic fibrosis and a life expectancy of about 40 years old, there is medication and treatments available to combat fluid buildups and improve breathing ability. Owen takes more than 25 pills per day and was one of the first five children in the country to receive a mechanical breathing device in the form of a wrap that goes around his chest.
Heidi wore a cystic fibrosis awareness shirt in support of her son on his big day. On the back of the shirt was a checklist with life events like ‘Celebrate his First Birthday’ as well as ‘Get a Driver’s License’ and ‘Go To College’ followed by check marks as they complete each task with Owen. That list might need to add one more event to it.
Skate at Joe Louis Arena with the Red Wings. Check.