DETROIT — The Red Wings love giving back, especially when it involves children.
But for goaltender Jimmy Howard, 6-year-old Owen Provencher is a special case.
On Thursday, Owen was wearing his own Red Wings gear and skated with the team before and during part of practice as part of his wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Owen has cystic fibrosis, which they discovered when he was just two weeks old.
"When I was pregnant I got a blood test that said I was a carrier," said Heidi Provencher, Owen’s mom. "We have no family history of cystic fibrosis. The genetic counselor told me, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it. You have like a one in 3,000 chance of your husband being a carrier. Don’t even worry about it.’ So when they tested my husband he came back positive. We were like, a little blown away, so we decided not to test Owen any further.
"We just waited until he was born and tested him at birth and at 2 weeks old we found out he had CF. He started digestive enzymes at 2 weeks old as well as chest physiotherapy which we beat on his chest with a little thumper. And at 6 weeks old he was one of the first five kids in the country to get a wrap, which is like a mechanical breathing device, and we used to read to him during that and he would watch his singing animals that are so crazy. Because of it he’s always been comfortable with his therapy."
The Provencher family came from Sacramento, Calif., to Detroit and will be guests of the Red Wings for their game Friday against the Los Angeles Kings.
So what’s the connection between Owen and Howard?
"I’ve known his family pretty much all my life," Howard said. "His mom babysat me, his grandmother was my sixth-grade teacher so there’s a lot of history there."
Nancy Rudiger is Heidi Provencher’s mom and she was Howard’s sixth-grade teacher in Ogdensburg, New York.
Heidi babysat for Howard and his sister when Howard was in grade school.
"He was a great kid, very sweet and humble," Provencher said.
Now that sweet and humble kid is the Wings’ starting goaltender and he has two boys of his own.
"It’s a lot of fun," Howard said. "Owen’s a great kid. For us to be able to make a wish come true for him, it’s really special."
Heidi Provencher said when Owen was just 18 months old, they took him to his first Red Wings game when the Wings visited the San Jose Sharks.
"We sat him on our lap, he was into it, he watched the whole game, didn’t take his eyes off the puck up and down and afterwards going down to meet Jimmy was like out of this world for him," Heidi Provencher said. "He’s always dreamed of going to The Joe because we always go to the Shark Tank and they’re not kind to Red Wings fans."
The Wings themselves were overjoyed to extend every kindness to Owen.
"It’s great to have him down here," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It energizes our team. He was out there with (goaltending coach) Jimmy B(edard) and the goalies first. Then he was on with the guys for a little scrimmage so I assume it was enjoyable for him. The more of that stuff we can do, the more we will. It’s a good thing."
Back home in California, Owen plays hockey, which Heidi says has helped him fight his disease.
"We push him and he pushes himself pretty hard," Heidi Provencher said. "He did take a break from hockey for a little while, we did notice that slowed him down and did have a hard time with a lot of things when he was out of hockey. I think the hockey just helps keep everything moving for him.
"The fact that he is doing so well, we’re fully grateful and we’re very, very thankful. Because he works hard to stay healthy. He takes digestive enzymes, he takes over 25 pills a day. He works really hard."
Owen, who even held his first press conference in the Wings’ dressing room, said he enjoyed shooting and scoring against Howard during practice.
"That was really cool," Owen said.
Owen presented Howard with a special gift of See’s Candies and then planned to meet up with him later so they could get haircuts together.
Heidi Provencher knows it’s a couple of days her son will never forget.
"It’s so hard for me to put into words, it’s meant the world," Heidi Provencher said. "I’m so grateful to the Red Wings organization. The players, the coaches, everybody’s incorporated him, made him feel so welcome, been so friendly. It’s amazing.
"I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like going back after this. Amazing memories."