mr hockey

Left Field (ISN) 

(ISN) – News that hockey legend Gordie Howe had suffered a stroke that had left him slightly paralyzed and slurring his words almost left me speechless. More sad news today indicates that what initially looked like a strong recovery has been derailed by a second stroke.

My first memory of Howe dates back to 1963 when he was a guest between periods on Hockey night in Canada during a game against the Canadiens in Montreal. CBC played a song written and performed by Verdun native Bob Davies called “Gordie Howe is the Greatest of Them All” that was making the rounds on radio. Although the camera showed Howe tapping his skate on the floor to the beat of the music during the interview, he seemed embarrassed by all the fuss the song had caused, and much more keen to talk about his Detroit teammates.

I got to see him play against Montreal a few years later, when he was arguably the best player in the game at that time according to my dad, a Montreal fan with a an objective eye when it came to grudgingly grading the opposition. Someone gave a friend of mine two tickets to the Saturday night tilt so we headed off to the game. We managed to catch some of the action on the ice by leaning around the giant concrete pillar planted in front of our seats, located somewhere way up there in the upper reaches of the old Forum. Howe was by far the best player on either team that night in what turned out to be a rout for the Red Wings.

The next time Howe and I crossed paths was about eight years ago when he landed in Langford for a book signing at City Centre Park. I had to attend in my capacity as the only reporter for the local paper at that time, and wasn’t too happy about the assignment because it meant I had to miss the Habs game on television that night. I got there a little early, and found myself ushered into a room where Gordie and his son Marty were stacking books onto a table, the only piece of furniture in the room.

I introduced myself and was shocked by how my hand literally disappeared into Howe’s when he extended his for an introductory shake; I have never seen a pair of hands that size, which perhaps explains why he was so adept at shooting left or right. Gordie turned out to be one of the most down to earth, humble and quietly engaging people I ever interviewed in a career that included one on ones with Jack Nicklaus, Ken Dryden and Geoff Courtnall. Howe began by apologizing for not wearing a tie, explaining that he always wore one when he was attending a function with the public. I laughed out loud and told him that if he had worn one that night, he would be the only person in the building that tied one on.

We chatted for about 15 minutes before the book signings began, and I will forever fondly remember what a pleasure it was to spend a little time with a living legend that seemed so completely devoid of the gigantic ego that frequently accompanies the superstar persona. Howe was equal parts patient and considerate with all the eager fans gathered to get their book signed. It was a collection of young hockey players, many in Detroit jerseys, accompanied by their dads and grandfathers, mostly Red Wings fans who had grown up watching Gordie dominate the game they loved. Howe shared words of encouragement with all of the youngsters and disarming, charming comments for the older fans who took their turn at the table, pen and book in hand. He would occasionally point a playful elbow towards someone’s unsuspecting ear, drawing responses that bordered on reverence from the recipients of his playful jabs. When I interrupted to ask him to help stage a photo for the paper near the end of the signing, he was as enthusiastic and accommodating as when I first walked in. I drove home with a smile on my face that night that is here now as I write this.

May the hockey gods smile on Howe long enough to ensure a full recovery, and give him another opportunity to skate with his grandchildren. The greatest of them all deserves nothing less than that, at the very least.