Gordie ‘n Me
It is 2008 and on the brink of turning seventy I have retired from playing hockey and football, but not principally because I might no longer be capable of making a fool of myself in that regard. No, the major reason is that all the guys who made up the pickup teams that comprised our “league” and who are all younger than me, have beaten me to the retirement punch!
Still a fan of professional hockey and football, albeit less ardent a follower than I used to be, I was nonetheless thrilled to receive an invitation from my friend Dale to attend an afternoon patio party in which the guest of honour was to be no less an icon of the game of hockey than Mr. Hockey himself, the legendary Hall Of Fame player, Gordie Howe.
Gordie Howe! Wow! Holy Cow!
There are legends in all sports, both amateur and professional, but it is difficult to imagine a greater one than is Gordie Howe in professional hockey. His goal scoring record superseded only by Wayne Gretzky, Howe holds just about every other record in hockey, including playing in the NHL (National Hockey League) at age fifty-two with his two sons, themselves having attained professional status. Rather than regurgitate Howe’s entire hockey history, the following partial list of Howe’s achievements should adequately serve to define his legendary status. It is hard to conceive that some of these records will ever be broken.
Most NHL (National Hockey League) regular season games played:
1,767 Most NHL regular season games played with a single team (Detroit Red Wings):
1,687 Most NHL and WHA (World Hockey Association) regular season games played:
2,186 Most NHL and WHA regular season and playoff games played: 2,421 Most consecutive NHL 20-goal seasons:
22 (1949–1971) First player to reach 1,500 games played in NHL history. Oldest player to play in NHL:
52 years, 11 days (no other player has played past the age of 48)
First in Red Wings history in points, goals and games played, second in assists Most NHL All-Star Game appearances:
23 Only player to play in the NHL in five different decades (1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s).
Of further significance is the fact that Howe played during the era when the NHL was a league of only six teams, with literally hundreds of hungry souls in the minor leagues waiting to take the place of anyone who faltered in the big league. While Howe was a star of considerable magnitude, he played in a pre-players’ union era where players were literally under paid indentured slaves to owners who made millions from their players’ talents.
While Howe was a player of considerable hockey skills, he was particularly noted for the toughness of his play. At six feet tall and over two hundred pounds, a big man for a hockey player in those days, it was rumoured that he sharpened his elbows before every game in preparation for those encounters with opposing players along the boards! Few players willingly undertook to fight Howe and those that did invariably came out on the short end of the battle. Indicative perhaps of Howe’s overall talent was the fact that he became the namesake of the “Gordie Howe hat trick”: a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.
But back to the present. Howe was apparently to be in Vancouver at some function related to his role as part owner of the Vancouver Giants, the city’s Junior “A” hockey team. My friend Dale, through some means unknown to me, had arranged this patio party at which Howe was to make an appearance.
One of the great rivalries during Gordie Howe’s playing days was between his long time team, the Detroit Red Wings and my home town team the Montreal Canadiens. Both were prolific winners of, or finalists in, the race for the Stanley Cup; one of all professional sports’ most venerable trophies of supremacy. Commissioned in 1892, it is older than any other professional sports trophy in North America.
Given this historical rivalry, smartass me had an idea. I would go to the party dressed in my Montreal Canadiens jersey. Rescuing this authentic team jersey from deep inside a bureau drawer and where it had not been worn for many years, I donned it and set out for the party, confident that my apparel would draw some attention and laughter from the other people attending the party but unsure of what reception I might get from Mr. Hockey. The gag was a great success, drawing much attention and laughter from the audience and mock anger from Howe. To the many sounds of cameras and smart phone cameras being used, Howe and I embraced in a mock battle, grabbing at each other’s throats in gestures of alleged hostility, mitigated by the smiles and laughter of the two of us. A picture of our playful encounter can be found at the end of this blog.
Howe of course turned out to be what he essentially has always been off the ice; down-to-earth, gracious and self–effacing, perhaps in reflection of his hard scrabble, rural Saskatchewan upbringing during the Depression. Some enlightening and playful conversation between us ensued that afternoon as we explored the Montreal-Detroit rivalry during his playing days with the latter.
All in all, it was a delightful occasion for which I would not have missed for the world. Sadly since that time and subsequent to his wife Colleen’s death in 2009, Howe had to deal with the onset and ugly problems of dementia and a stroke.
On June 10, 2016 at the age of 88, Mr. Hockey left the ice for the last time. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have met him.
I’m on the bench and (coach) Jack Adams shouts,
“Syd, get in there.”
Nobody moves and he’s furious.
Finally, he looks right at me and shouts it again.
“I’m not Syd,” I told him.
“I don’t give a damn, get in there anyway!”
Gordie Howe, on his first NHL game.
Copyright © 2016 Ian de W. Semple