Danette Duckworth wasn’t going to let death stand in the way of her long-standing love for the St. Louis Blues.
When she found out last fall that her cancer had come back and spread, she started telling her husband, Ken Duckworth, 61, her final wishes. She wanted to be buried in the jersey of her favorite player: Chuck Lefley, a forward for the Blues in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, who had given Danette a hockey stick at a game when she was 18 years old. She cherished it her entire life.
Ken was determined to honor her dying wish. In November, the couple got a special Lefley jersey made with the number 25 on it.
Danette got to wear it once.
Ken and Danette both grew up in the small Missouri town of St. Clair. They became friends in high school when she was 16 and he was 15. She was the only girl Ken knew who subscribed to Hockey Digest, Baseball Digest, Hockey News and Sporting News. He would read the magazines with her in study hall. One day she came over to his house and played table hockey with him.
“Of course, I beat her,” he says.
Their friendship turned into something more following high school, when Ken joined the Navy. They kept in touch through letters and saw each other on his visits home. On their first date, he took her to a Blues game.
“That night I lay in bed, and I knew I was going to marry that girl,” Ken says.
He did marry her on Sept. 6, 1980. They spent all their wedding money on Blues season tickets. The family never missed a game -- every preseason, regular season and postseason game. If they couldn’t go watch it live, they watched on television.
The games brought out a different side of Danette’s sweet demeanor.
“Shoot the dang puck!” she would scream at the top of her lungs at the TV.
“Pipe down,” Ken would tell her.
Their daughters laughed to see their sweet mom lose her cool and holler during the games. Jenni Hills, 28, of De Soto, Missouri, said her earliest memories are of watching hockey with her mom. For years, Danette made one prediction over and over: The Blues would win the Stanley Cup the year she died.
Two years ago, Danette was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. She couldn’t go to many games after that because of the rounds of chemotherapy. But she never missed watching -- and yelling at -- the TV. Ken, her husband of 38 years, said the last few weeks of her life were extremely difficult.
“She was the most resilient, mentally strongest person I have ever known,” he said in a eulogy he delivered at her funeral. He described their last moments together.
“Last Friday, she was in much pain … I sat with Danette all night, holding her hand, and softly talked. We prayed for God to take her home. Sometime around midnight, she took off her wedding rings and handed them to me. I told her she wasn’t going to die without those rings on her finger.
“As the sun began to rise, with the fireplace softly glowing brightly, I played Alan Jackson singing ‘Softly and Tenderly’ on her phone.
“After he finished, I told her I loved her and it was OK to go. I know she heard me and acknowledged me with a faint squeeze of the hand.
“Moments later, she slipped into a coma.”
He slipped her wedding rings back on her finger.
Danette was 62 when she died on Feb. 2.
Her beloved team was in next-to-last place in the Central Division. But when she knew she was dying, she figured it was their year.
“If they make it, you spend the money and go,” she told her husband a month before she died.
Ken breaks down into tears when he talks about how much this Stanley Cup Final would have meant to her.
“She’d be literally overjoyed,” he said.
Once again, Ken is honoring his wife’s final wishes.
“I’m spending the money and taking them,” he said. He and his daughters attended Game 3 in St. Louis.
Hills made a big poster with her mother’s picture, and they wore special T-shirts with her mom’s name. The shirts said: “She waited 49 years for this, and now she has the best seat in the house.”