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The Veterans Centre scored big when it granted James Houston the perfect hockey-themed wish


Three years ago, James Houston's wish was granted: a flat-screen television for his room at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, where he's lived since 2006. A consummate hockey fan, Houston loves to follow the game, though lately his eyesight hasn't been top-notch and it's been hard to follow the puck on the screen, explains his son Braden Houston.

And the wish-granting didn't end there. Last August, just before his 105th birthday, Mr. Houston was handed another gift. With family, staff and a few retired NHL players in attendance, Mr. Houston was presented a replica jersey of hockey legend Syl Apps and a framed photo from 1942, when the Toronto Maple Leafs captain steered his team to a Stanley Cup championship. For a lifelong Leafs fan, it was the ultimate present.

As Mr. Houston was wheeled into the Veterans Centre's balloon-festooned recreation room, he was at first overwhelmed by the group there to celebrate his 105th birthday, which included reporters from the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun, hockey vets Jim McKenny and Bob Nevin and Mr. Apps's own son, Syl Jr. Once he was shown the blue-and-white jersey, though, Mr. Houston shouted in recognition, "Good number!" as he gazed in admiration of the big, white "10" on the jersey draped over his shoulders.

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Ever the old-fashioned fan, Mr. Houston kept calling the jersey a sweater – a throwback to the days when hockey players actually wore the woollen garments. "This is one of the nicest things I've ever had," he declared as Braden helped him put on the jersey.

It was the realization of a lifelong dream when hockey fan and Sunnybrook Veterans Centre Grant a Wish recipient James Houston, 105, received a replica jersey of the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs championship-winning team Captain Syl Apps.

Both the television and sweater were made possible by the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre's Grant a Wish Program. Supported by donors and community sponsors, the program has granted over 850 wishes to the centre's 500 veterans since its inception in 2005. The concept is simple, and the impact meaningful. Residents are encouraged to write down wishes for anything they want most in the world – and anything really does apply here. Past wishes have ranged from hiring members of a local orchestra to accompany one veteran who was a professional singer, to purchasing an engagement ring for another veteran's wife on their 67th anniversary, to even treating a group of friends to a night out at a restaurant.

The program is part of an array of recreation and creative arts therapies that Nancy Bowers-Ivanski oversees at the Veterans Centre. "The goal of our service is to provide meaningful support to all the veterans as they try to improve their lives through leisure," she explains. Recreation, art, music and horticulture therapies are all aspects of the leisure activities the centre provides. This ranges from Friday night seminars, where experts lecture on topics such as botany or music, regular visits to Royal Canadian Legion halls, to yearly camping trips to Lake Joseph in Muskoka cottage country north of Toronto. "We are seeing a trend that the average age is 91 in the centre," says Nancy, "so we really have to work to adapt our programming to their age."

Recreation therapist Leanne Hughes co-ordinates the presentation of 11 wishes a month, designated either as "pearl" wishes (one per month is granted), or "gem" wishes (10 per month are granted). A veteran may be granted up to two wishes. "Some wishes are simple; others are larger in scope," says Leanne. "They are all, regardless, extremely special to the individual veteran who has made the request."

That's certainly the case for Mr. Houston, who played hockey in youth leagues while growing up in Toronto and Markham, Ont. As a teen in the 1920s, he'd earn extra money by getting up in the early mornings to fire up the furnaces of local stores and selling papers in the Beach neighbourhood for a penny apiece. By the time he was working as a linens and suits buyer at Eaton's (where he worked until retiring in 1973), Mr. Houston was an avid Leafs follower, in particular a fan of Mr. Apps. "He was business, all business," he fondly recalls of Mr. Apps. "I thought he was the best – a good man and a good player."

After moving to Scarborough, Ont.,  with his family, Mr. Houston would take his son Braden to hockey practice with the Toronto Marlboros junior team. In the early 1960s, Braden finished playing for the Marlboro Junior A's and then went on to play for the University of New Hampshire on a hockey scholarship. After graduating he participated in a Maple Leafs' training camp before playing professionally in South Africa and Germany.

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Like Mr. Apps, whose son and granddaughter went on to play professionally, Mr. Houston comes from a hockey family. Also like Mr. Apps, Mr. Houston served two years in the Second World War, from 1942 to 1944. "My dad applied to the air force," says Braden. "At that time, he was 32, but they were looking for younger men. They told him he was too old." When Mr. Houston didn't relent, he was accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) as a corporal, serving in the RCAF's Trenton, and Toronto, Ont., administrative offices.

Braden, who now lives in New York state, comes up to Sunnybrook every six weeks or so to see his father, who moved into the Veterans Centre from his Scarborough home after his wife, Lulu, passed away six years ago. Mr. Houston's favourite father-and-son activity now is what he calls "Christmas shopping" – heading to the local dollar store to see all the strange manner of things you can get for a buck these days.

"They take really great care of their veterans here," says Braden. "He's been around so long, but he's always kept himself very busy. He'll go to the musical events and tributes they have downstairs. He really appreciates it."

Just before the Veterans Centre staff got ready to cut Mr. Houston's birthday cake, Braden held out a framed photograph of the Maple Leafs' 1942 Stanley Cup victory, one of three that Captain Apps led the team to. As Braden explained to the assembled group how the Leafs lost the first three games to Detroit only to storm back with four straight victories to take the Cup, Mr. Houston nodded at the photograph and pointed to each of the players.

"Hey, Dad," Braden asked, "could you skate as fast as Apps?"

"Faster!" Mr. Houston replies, smiling.

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"We can never do enough to show our gratitude for all that our veterans have done for us," says Grant a Wish program facilitator Leanne Hughes. However, the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre's Operation Raise a Flag is certainly a great place to start. Imagine waking up to a sea of thousands of red and white flags from people all over the country, right on your front lawn.

Every fall, Sunnybrook invites citizens to purchase Canadian flags in recognition of the service and sacrifices our veterans have made. In the early hours of November 11, every flag is planted in front of the Veterans Centre to create a field of gratitude from across the country. Proceeds from the sale go toward the Veterans Comfort Fund, helping to provide veteran residents with the "extras" such as important equipment, special events and entertainment items that enhance their quality of life. For more information about purchasing a flag, visit or call 416-480-4483.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with Sunnybrook. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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