In Gordie Howe, a legend passes, but stories remain

by | Jun 12, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Reflecting on the tales centered around Gordie Howe–Mr. Hockey–shows he touched most of metro Detroit, hockey world in special way

Here’s a Gordie Howe story. He was playing at the old Olympia, and an opposing player hit him and somehow cut his hand. Gordie had to leave the ice and go to the trainer’s room. There, Dr. John (Jack) Finley, the Wings’ longtime physician, began stitching him up carefully.

“Hurry up,” Gordie said. “I gotta get back out there.”

As Finley accelerated, Gordie added, “And by the way, Jack, don’t go anywhere. Because the guy who did this is gonna be in here real soon.”

Scotty Bowman told that story Friday afternoon, laughing. Just as Wayne Gretzky told ESPN about being with Gordie at a White House dinner with President Reagan, and there were so many forks that Gretzky asked his childhood hero which one they should use.

“Kid, I have no idea,” Gordie said. “I’ll follow the president and you follow me.”

Who really follows Gordie Howe? Nobody can. Nobody will give us stories like that, or memories like those, not 25 years with a single team, not five decades of hockey, not a standing ovation at Joe Louis Arena as a white-haired, 51-year-old All-Star.

You lose athletes like this, and there’s a hole on the shelf forever. Nobody slides over. Nobody fills the space.

A TV anchor asked me Friday what other Detroit athlete’s death was equal to Howe’s? I had no answer at the time.

All I know is that this was seismic. Gordie Howe was the Babe Ruth of hockey. And you’d expect that Babe Ruth’s death would be felt most strongly in New York, right?

The world should expect no less from Detroit. Howe’s passing on Friday morning came on the same day as Muhammad Ali’s funeral, and while the nation can lament two towering sports figures dying in the same week, there should be no criticism (as there was in some corners) for Detroit focusing its attention on Howe, even at the expense of Ali’s funeral service.

All sports are, at their core, local. It’s why players wear the name of cities (or countries) on their jerseys, and why fans root based on their geography.

Gordie Howe was one of ours. He was “Detroit” and “Red Wings” with capital letters. His departure from this earth was always going to be our biggest story of that day. No apologies. None needed.

Since then, and with plans now for a memorial viewing at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday, people around the country have asked what it’s been like in Detroit since the news spread. The answer: It’s as if a top has been lifted from a boiling cauldron and an explosion of marvelous memories have shot into the sky.

A bigger-than-life player

Who didn’t know Gordie Howe in this city? Or this state? Who doesn’t have some kind of story or encounter? As with legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell, whose viewing drew more than10,000 people to Comerica Park, it seems everyone who ever shook Gordie Howe’s hand was moved to remember it as a personal highlight. Someone will boast how he chatted with their youth hockey team and someone will tell you how he signed autographs in a parking lot and someone will detail how, if a child didn’t say please or thank you, he’d mark their palm with the pen.

Look left. Look right. There’s someone talking about Gordie. The stories seem to group into two categories:

The first sound like panels in a Superman comic. As a child, young Gordie, born in a tiny Canadian farm town named Floral, grew strong carrying buckets of water into the farmhouse (his family had no indoor plumbing). Later he hauled bags of cement when he quit school to work in construction.

As a teen player he was 6 feet tall and ambidextrous, and could do things equally well from both sides. His physique grew so chiseled, he could crush your hand when he shook it. He signed with the Red Wings, and his signing bonus was a team jacket. A team jacket? Yep.

“After I finished a game at the Olympia I used to walk home,” he once told me. “Then, when I moved into a residential area, I took the bus down Grand River. You don’t get too flamboyant on $6,000 a year.”

Even so, he quickly fought his way into the league, and at 18 was already known as a brute force, at times, almost superhuman. During the 1950 Stanley Cup semifinals, Gordie suffered a serious injury crashing his head into the boards, and doctors had to drill a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure. Many thought he’d never play again. Instead he came back the next year and led the league in scoring.

When does the Kryptonite come in? When does he grab Paul Bunyan’s ax? That’s what it’s like to hear the first type of stories about Howe. He led the Wings to the NHL’s best record seven years in a row. He won six MVP awards, won six scoring titles, held up four Stanley Cups and kept playing and playing, even as his once brown hair receded on that high, prominent forehead, until he looked more like a professor than a hockey player.

Well. From the neck up.

The rest of him was rugged hockey. Tough? He knocked out the famous Maurice (Rocket) Richard the first time they played each other. One punch. Nearly a decade later, when the New York Rangers’ Lou Fontinato tried to ambush him, Howe hit him so hard “he demolished his nose,” hockey historian Stan Fischler recalled. “I was there. Lou’s nose took a 90-degree turn.”

Fischler — who ranks Howe as “Top of the list. Not second. Not third. The top.” — is one of so many inside the game telling stories of Howe this weekend. Analysts. Players. Coaches. Old friends.

Here was Red Berenson, the longtime U-M hockey coach, who as a young player with Montreal, was asked by the legendary Toe Blake to “cover” Gordie and not give him any room:

“I tried to do that — and all of a sudden, my head was spinning. He nearly knocked it off. … I looked over at our bench and they were laughing, because they knew. It was the infamous elbow. That was Gordie Howe.”

Here was Don Cherry, of “Hockey Night in Canada,” telling his audience Friday, from an airport, about the first time he met Howe, during warmups on the ice. Cherry, then a young player, was adjusting a new jock strap.

“Having trouble finding it?” Howe asked, skating past.

From the historical to the hysterical, the stories tumble forth. I can personally detail a time when I sat with Gordie, who was nearly 70, and fired a series of “urban legends” about him to see if they were true.

“Gordie Howe once suited up with the Detroit Tigers and hit a few balls out of the park,” I said.

“True,” he said. “Well. Into the seats.”

“Gordie Howe,” I continued, “who suffered from dyslexia, flunked the third grade twice.”

“False,” he said.

“Did you flunk it once?”

“Yeah, once.” He paused. “But that’s the year I started playing hockey.”

“Gordie Howe, as a kid, would play with pucks made of ‘frozen road apples,’ another word for cow manure,” I said.

“That’s false,” he answered, smiling. “I was a goaltender. And in the spring, that would be dangerous.”

A humble champion off the ice

Then there are the private stories. The many moments of charity. The countless hours at a rink or a function.

The time Gordie photobombed a picture Kris Draper was taking with his son at Comerica Park, capturing a mock elbow throw beautifully. (“I’m so lucky to have that photo,” Draper said Friday.) Or the plane trip that Gordie took from New Orleans, sitting next to a woman whose husband, Roop Raj, was working as Detroit TV newsman. The woman had no idea who Gordie was, and he never told her. Just spoke the whole trip about New Orleans. When they landed, he gave her a card.

“Give this to your husband,” he said.

The card read “Mr. Hockey.”

There are thousands of memories like that, being quietly told all over town. Make no mistake. It wasn’t all storybook for Gordie. He served only four years as captain during his 25-year Red Wings tenure. “I did not like the captaincy,” he once told me. “You’re the one they come to and ask ‘What happened?’ ”

He also never made the kind of money that lets a legend retire for good (thus the many post-playing endeavors). And he wasn’t thrilled with his retirement treatment by the then-Wings management.

“They didn’t know what to do with Gordie Howe,” he once said. “…They had me in the front office. I think they were trying to embarrass me to leave … Thank God the present ownership is different…

“I’d liked to have been an assistant coach, where I could play with the guys every day, and also be in a position where if two people got injured, I could go on the bench. If a third person got hurt, I could play five minutes.”

It didn’t happen. After all those years with the Wings, he finished with a WHA stint, and a year in Hartford. Then came decades of just being “Mr. Hockey” — plus a one-game appearance with the Detroit Vipers, which allowed him to say he played in six decades.

I joked with him before that game that he should be careful going over the boards. He said, “That’s why I’m starting. I’ll go through the gate.”

His final years were challenging. The recent stroke that robbed him of his mobility and other functions had many fans bracing for the worst. (And reportedly had Gordie telling his family, “Just take me out back and shoot me.”)

But in true Howe fashion, he rallied once more, defying odds with unconventional medicine (a stem cell treatment) putting the weight back on, regaining his strength, making a few more appearances to serve his legend.

The news of his death came suddenly to most of us. No long deterioration. No sad updates on failing health. He went quietly, with modesty, befitting a child of the Depression, who got his first pair of skates from a woman going door to door selling her possessions. Those first blades were too big, and he needed to stuff them with socks.

It was the last time any hockey shoe could not be filled by Gordie Howe.

He did it all. He left it all. “They used to say if you needed to fill a rink,” Scotty Bowman recalled, “you’d probably go for Rocket (Richard). But if you needed to win championships, you’d have Gordie Howe on your team.”

That’s the kind of statement that makes a legacy. That, and maybe one more story from the second category, the kind that only get told after an icon has passed.

In 1995, the Wings were in the Western Conference finals against Chicago, one win from making the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1966. Although they won the first three games, they’d been embarrassed by the Blackhawks in Game 4 and some were worried about a letdown. Sergei Fedorov, a huge star, had an injured shoulder and was planning to sit out Game 5.

Gordie came to see Scotty Bowman. He told Bowman he thought it was essential that Fedorov play.

“Why don’t you ask him to come down to the Joe tonight and I’ll talk to him,” Howe suggested.

Bowman did. Fedorov came down that night. They went out on the ice together. As Bowman recalled, “Gordie said to him, ‘Sergei, you’re not gonna get in to the semifinals every year. This isn’t always going to happen. You got to suck it up and play.”

Sure enough, the next night, Fedorov played. The game went to double overtime. It ended when Fedorov made an assist to Slava Kozlov who buried the winning goal.

Twenty-nine years after the Wings had last been to a Cup final, when Gordie was a player, they were going again.

Howe was a bridge. A quiet, tell-nobody, era-to-era bridge.

You want to know what it’s like in Detroit? That’s what it’s like. Story after story. Head shake after head shake. What Gordie Howe meant to his sport, what he meant to his fans, what he meant to this city, is still yet to be measured, because the memories keep exploding from that cauldron.

But I do have an answer now for that anchor who asked what other Detroit athlete’s passing compares to this one.

No one.

Visitation for Mr. Hockey

Visitation will be held 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena. The Howe family will be present to greet the public. The funeral service will be 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, 9844 Woodward Ave. in Detroit. The celebrant will be Father J.J. Mech.


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