The legacy of Gordie Howe: his impact on my life

by Gordon Shawanda

It’s only natural, every kid has an idol or hero growing up, and mine was Gordie Howe. He gave me warmth and enthusiasm in my early years all through the winters during seven particular seasons when times were rough in the bitter-cold country of Northeastern Ontario. For me, growing up in the 1950s wasn’t easy.

I was placed in the IRS (Indian Residential School) in Spanish when I was six-years-old in the early 1950s. This is where I learned how to skate and play hockey. I have to admit the priests were good coaches and good teachers on how to play ice hockey, but they were also strapping disciplinarians. When I came home it wasn’t all that rosy-posy either. Running away had entered my mind on several occasions. Mr. Hockey kept me going for seven years even after I left home in 1964. 

I was about 11-years-old when I first heard about Gordie Howe. My brothers and neighbourhood kids, we used to skate and play hockey out by the frozen pond near our house at Wikwemikong. One day, so inquisitive, I asked my oldest brother Ray if he knew any NHL hockey players’ names. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know Gordie Howe. He plays for the Detroit Red Wings and he’s the best in the League.’ Ray had just come home for Christmas holidays. He was a chef in Greenfield Restaurant on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, which I would visit 10 years later.

Francis, Eugene and I, had just come home from the Spanish IRS, also for Christmas holidays not knowing this would be our last year in the Indian Residential School. It’s obvious my brother Ray was a Detroit Red Wings fan. After all, he lived in the hockey town, the automobile capital city of the world. And this is how I came to be a Gordie Howe admirer. But that’s just the way it was—every kid wanted to be somebody else, someone skillful when playing ice hockey out in the frozen ponds.

Gordie Howe kept me motivated for seven years; I became a hockey fanatic. Only my close friends knew it. I started collecting NHL hockey cards, plastic hockey coins, hockey posters, I even ordered the popular Hockey Pictorial magazine, which I received once a month and the Hockey News, which entertained me every two weeks. Both magazines were published in Toronto. It was from these two magazines that I constructed my hockey scrapbook with paste and cutouts. And of course the famous business deal, 5” x 7” Bee Hive Corn Syrup NHL hockey pictures—buy one Bee Hive Corn Syrup and mail in your coupon to Port Credit, Ontario. My hockey collectables piled up. Kids and grown ups alike would drop by, wanting to see my collections, with some readers spending time reading my hockey magazines. I even heard my father say one evening, ‘Where’s all the syrup coming from?’

Family members started to wonder where the money was coming from. But that’s another story. I have been broke many times but I was never poor. There were four people who owned a TV set in Murray Hill in the late 1950s in this satellite community of Wikwemikong: Anthony Trudeau, Alphonse Pangowish, the Murray Hill School, and my father, Jacob Shawanda and on Saturday nights our house would be full of people come to watch the popular Hockey Night in Canada.

There were a lot of hockey fans young and old, most were Toronto Maple Leaf Fans, there was a few Montreal enthusiasts and Chicago Black Hawks fans, likewise Boston and New York Rangers. It seemed I was the only Red Wings Fan around. My parents were Maple Leaf fans so was Francis, and brother Eugene was a Montreal Canadien admirer. But I made sure the people coming in our house knew: Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings were my team. As soon as the neighbours and relatives walked into our house they would see a Gordie Howe picture, 5” x 7”, from the famous Bee Hive Company sitting on top of the TV looking superior. He was the Super Star, Mr. Hockey.

Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings never won the Stanley Cup while I was living in Wikwemikong. For seven years I watched them battle it out in the playoffs and in the finals, many times getting beat out by a single goal. After the finals, my friends and my family and the Murray Hill individuals always celebrated with the Stanley Cup champions, something that was notable in the Murray Hill district. And if it’s not the Montreal Canadiens winning, it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. For me those times, those unbearable nights, were hard to swallow. But realizing that the Detroit Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup from 1950 to 1954, four years in a row, and no team had ever done it before made me feel proud. And knowing Gordie Howe won the scoring championship year after year and almost every other trophy awarded in the NHL, he also took home made me feel good too. Realizing this remarkable accomplishment, no wonder I lived satisfied my mind in the hockey world for seven years.

Listening to Detroit Red Wings Hockey games year after year on the radio station with my brother Francis was most exciting and to hear Gordie Howe get an assist, score a goal or score a hat-trick seemed more thrilling than ever. Each year, Howe broke records and set new ones. One night me and Francis were listening to the Chi-Aadaam (Chatham) radio station. Gordie Howe was the attention. This time he was on his way to break the record of another Hockey Great record holder, Rocket Richard, for the all time best season of 544 goals.

Gordie Howe hadn’t scored a goal in 10 games, he was on a winless streak. I told Francis it’s got to be tonight. It was in the fall, our well water was overflowing, and getting mucky and messy. I had to get water across the road at our neighbour’s well. I told Francis, I have to get water now and it will give me a chance for a breather. I was getting nervous. As I walked across the road in the dark with a pail in each hand, I asked God Almighty to help Gordie Howe score the goal he needed to break the record. He had been scoreless to long. It was the first time I ever asked the Creator for anything like that. The purpose of captivating. When I came back, I walked into the house and Francis said, ‘Gordie Howe just broke the Rocket’s record.’ I was so overjoyed I dropped both pails of water and it spilled all over the floor. Francis laughed his head off. He said, ‘there’s more of that where that came from.’ What a fine way to ask for help in the dark and for Creator to answer prayers, I thought. 

My hockey days were over when I turned 18-years-old. There was no hockey in a town where I lived and worked, Mt. Clemens, Michigan. And my lifestyle was changing. When a person misses a year playing hockey, it’s never the same again as something is lost, the coordination is gone. It’s not like riding a bike, where you could be off it for a length of time and still paddle the bike skilfully. I played hockey in Wikwemikong for about seven years. Pee Wee, Bantam and I went to Toronto Hockey School for a week in August of 1963. Our special guest was Red Kelly of Toronto Maple Leafs and there were three Instructors, one was Dave Dryden, the brother of famous goaltender Ken Dryden. Fifty of us students went to a field and did a strenuous exercise and 25 hardworking kids were picked to go to Maple Leaf Gardens and watch Toronto Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach’s son Brett Imlach try out for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I was one of the 25 lucky kids picked to watch the tryout game in the Gardens.

To walk into the historic Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens then was a thrill of a lifetime and riding up the escalator was like riding in dreamland. Unfortunately, Brett Imlach didn’t make the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, that winter in Wikwemikong, I jumped the league and instead of playing for Juniors, I played in the Intermediate division, a notch higher. Our playing coach was Zaabyea Xavier Fox. My hockey schooling had paid off. But time was moving on for me. It was my last season in Wikwemikong and I missed the hockey town deeply. Wiky was always competitive when it came to playing hockey in Manitoulin Island with the Senior League winning the trophy three consecutive years in the 1950s and Scotty Fisher’s Wiky Junior League team also winning three consecutive years in 1960s. The closest I ever came to winning a championship in my lifetime was with Wiky Bantams.

Our coach was my school teacher, Cecil King, now a retired professor in Saskatoon. We lost in Gore Bay in double overtime that evening. Double overtime was rare in those years. There were six teams in Manitoulin Island. Wikwemikong, Manitowaning, Little Current, Gore Bay, Providence Bay and Mindemoya. What I remember was every team was knocked off from the play-offs in Wikwemikong, from Pee Wee, Juniors, Intermediate and Seniors. Bantam was the only team left. When we arrived by car in Gore Bay it felt different without the other teams. We were used to travelling together on a bus. What happened was kind of surprising. Providence Bay Juniors were playing against Gore Bay Juniors right after our game. And it started from the first period, Providence Bay fans were cheering for us, all through the night. Every time we came close to scoring a goal or body checking someone against the boards, they started cheering and chanting ‘Go Wiky Go.’ that’s all was heard all through the night. It may have lifted us a lot, a feeling of appreciation. Even though we lost 3 to 2 to a better team. The ‘Porter’ youngster was noticeably a super hockey player for the Gore Bay Bantams. Nevertheless, we were the second best team in Manitoulin Island that year.

I lived in Mt. Clemens and hockey was still floating around in my veins at a slow pace. One Saturday I asked my now deceased wife Marge, ‘Let’s go and see Gordie Howe. He’s at Gordie Howe Hockey Land getting prepared for the kids’ hockey school in St. Clair Shores.’ It was about five miles from Mt. Clemens and we caught a bus to the arena, walked in and I saw Gordie Howe practice slap shots. He slowly turned around and came in our direction and made a slapshot. Marge ducked as the puck landed in front of the solid thick two-inch Herculite glass. Gordie Howe skated over and said, ‘Why did you duck?’

We laughed. Amusingly, I said, ‘You would duck too, if a puck came at you 100 miles an hour.’ This simply saying, he had the hardest slap shot in the NHL. He laughed and said, ‘Thank you’ and skated on. This man is my idol and the smallest connection could mean so much.

On Sunday evenings, I would go to Gordie Howe Hockey Land to public skating and try to limber up my legs. I enjoyed skating. That winter, on weekends, I played under Francis Miskokomon’s guidance in Walpole Island, Ontario, and one weekend we played at Gordie Howe Hockey Land, in St. Claire Shores. We won about 13-3. I wasn’t to pleased with the score. I always preferred competition. Francis Miskokomon was a good coach and good friend. He always made me laugh with his recollections.

I moved to Detroit City in 1969, the Hippy Era, fast life, fast cars and long hair. I thought it was exciting: lots of action, lots of parties, a large number of Anishinaabe people and a few ‘Blind Pigs’ as they were called, known as speakeasies in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was a place where people went for excitement after closing time to drink and gamble and listen to music. People called it ‘blind pig’ because the police would drive by them and pretend nothing was going on in the building, for the reason that the law claimed they were allowed to raid the place once every three or four months. This kind of living eventually will catch up to anyone. Doing the same thing, it becomes boring and sickening. 

To get out of this environment which was proving monotonous I went to hockey games and watched Gordie Howe play in the old Detroit Olympia Stadium before he retired. On a few occasions, I got my buddy Kenny Chi-geek Greenbird to accompany me. I waited until the Boston Bruins come to play so I could also watch Stan Jonathon in action. He was from the Six Nations Reserve and was known for acting out as a policeman in the NHL. Likewise, the Philadelphia Flyers. I waited until Reggie Leach come to play, the Ojibwe from Manitoba (who now lives on Manitoulin in AOK) known as the ‘Sniper,’ a deadly scorer, and there was Henry Boucha, who wore a red headband for the Red Wings, a feisty fast skater and one of the finest all around athletes from Warroad, Minnesota and of course watching Gordie Howe play put me in a clear-thinking mode as I watched him move about with great determination. This man could do everything. He was so good at the game he played, they eventually just named him after it. Mr. Hockey. 

Not long after, I was playing in Bloomfield Hills outside of Detroit. The bush league game was fast and close scoring. It was at this time I enjoyed myself the most. I played 12 games in the same arena and I noticed I was getting more tired towards the end, out of shape but still fun. My friends, Bobby Tawadjiwan Lewis and Billy Waabaazii Williams, would come with me for support. After the game I would always find them in the bar section of the arena overlooking the ice surface. They would always say ‘Good game, Gordie.’ I didn’t mind them. I still had a little fun of hockey left in me.

The following year, 1973, was my last. I played for Lansing Tribe in Lansing, Michigan. I would drive to Lansing every Sunday from Detroit with a carload of friends and visit families since, mainly, most families we knew were from Wiky. The men and women worked for General Motors, the home of the Oldsmobile auto factory. Bob Lewis was always with me like a bodyguard. He was a lot of fun to be with. I had fun in Lansing playing hockey. There were lots of laughs, lots of joking, lots of Anishinaabe humour. Me and George Roy was on the same team in Wiky Bantams years back and we were on same line in Lansing, Michigan. We were all from Wikwemikong and in Lansing except the two Debossige brothers from West Bay reserve. 

The two brothers, Brent and Pete, were good hockey players and they where always known to say, ‘You must be from Wiky.’ Wiky players, I guess, were known to hog the puck instead of passing it. They just want to stickhandle it and try to score. George tells me, ‘those two brothers, they say that all the time, don’t mind them.’ And so I end up with these two brothers on one of the shifts in the third period. Were in our own zone and can’t seem to get out. Brent has the puck and he’s a real good stick handler as I could see, but won’t pass the puck. Pete looks frustrated and shouts real loud to his brother, ‘You must be from Wiky.’ I cracked up laughing, I couldn’t stop laughing. I had to get off the ice. But I remembered that phrase in the Pee Wee days in Wikwemikong. They use to call my friend Harvey Bell Sr. in the Pee Wee division “Puck Hogger.” Harvey was a great stickhandler and good all around player. George says, ‘those two clowns have the puck all the time and they haven’t scored a goal yet.’ And more laughs. We played one Christmas weekend in Wikwemikong and got beat about 10 to 3. For the first time, I felt like I was actually working hard on the ice, the fun of the game had left me.

In 1978, I moved to Hamilton and worked for one of the steel companies. Hamilton was desperate to get an NHL franchise. They even built the NHL size arena hoping for an NHL team. The arena was named in honour of former mayor Victor K. Copps, the Copps Coliseum. The Hamilton team had been booted out of the NHL in the 1920s for demanding to strike. They were informed they will never have an NHL team again.  To keep Hockey alive in Hamilton, the Russian series took place there. Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were stand-outs for Canada in the 1980s. It appeared hockey fever was back knocking on my door. I remember standing in line in the cold, freezing rain to buy a package of hockey tickets for the Russian series. But most surprising, previously Mr. Hockey had made a comeback in the early ‘70s to play with his two sons Mark and Marty Howe for the Houston Aeros in the rival World Hockey League (WHL) and they won a championship twice in Houston, Texas, and a few years later they moved to Connecticut (Quin-netuckut) meaning (long tidal river) in Algonkian and became the Hartford Whalers.

When I heard they were coming to Toronto to play against Toronto Toros (another WHL franchise) I was excited and anxious to see my idol Gordie Howe play again, this time with his two sons Mark and Marty. I have to see this game, I said, this may be the last time I will see my idol play live hockey. (Mr. Hockey was 51-years-old when he retired in 1981 playing professional hockey. He played with the best hockey players in the world.) I caught a bus to Toronto and when I got on the escalator in Maple Leaf Gardens, my memory takes me back when I was a kid 20 years earlier. I particularly remember riding the same escalator in the early 1960s. ‘Not much has changed,’ I thought with a grin. I’m still a Gordie Howe follower.

When Gordie Howe got on the ice in Maple Leaf Gardens the crowd stood clapping, a long standing ovation respectfully. I watched him carefully as always. I watch his feet, I watch his legs and stride, his body check, his sharp elbows, and mostly I watch his lightning-fast switch of the hands and I watch him score. That night Gordie Howe scored the winning goal to make it 4 to 3 for the Hartford Whalers. Maple Leaf Gardens was jumping with seventh heaven. Nothing had changed, maybe a step or two, but he was still number one in my book, Mr. Hockey.

My attending the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on June 13 of this year was for me an important contribution to a memorial service for Gordon Howe. It was a special ceremonial that brought people to give thanks and show gratitude. It’s similar to our Rain Dance Ceremony in Wikwemikong for all men, women and children who have gone to the Sacred Tree to pray. It shows a mark of respect. Gordie Howe gave me determination, enthusiasm and affection to the game of Hockey since I was a little kid playing hockey with the best of them on Manitoulin Island. There was always something to look forward to when Mr. Hockey stepped on the ice. He was the only NHL player ever, who could shoot a puck either from left hand and quickly switch to right hand and score. Gordie Howe showed us how.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gordon Zhaawonde Shawanda is a First Nations elder and Wikwemikong band member who currently resides and teaches Anishinabemowin in Hamilton.