Mr. Hockey

A hockey fan’s reminiscence of a Canadian hockey icon: Gordie Howe

EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin hockey enthusiast Larry Leblanc agreed to pen his view of the late Gordie Howe’s legacy to hockey. Mr. Leblanc observed that what Maurice (Rocket) Richard was to French Canada what Gordie Howe was to English Canada. “Mr. Hockey” passed away on Friday, June 10. He was 88.

by Larry Leblanc

He was an “Aw Shucks” kind of guy off the ice. But on the ice he was Mr. Business who would give you the elbows or feed you a piece of lumber (real lumber in those days)! The man with many nicknames, Mr. Hockey was a remarkable man as well as an athlete. All fans knew about his hockey skills but few knew his life off the ice.

“Mr. Elbows” left us last week at the grand old age of eighty-eight after a courageous overtime game against Alzheimer’s disease. He handled this fight like he handled any other on the ice, with determination, courage and above all, action. He did not sit still for the approaching threat, he went after it with all he had in him. As a final resort, he finally flew to another country, Mexico, to have a new stem-cell treatment to combat the disease. This strategy took him into overtime. He was not supposed to be there. He was expected to have already succumbed. But his condition improved! In the end, he got to play a year and a half of “extra-time.” In hockey, Gordie was an “overtime guy.” He mastered 33 years of professional hockey, an eternity in the fast-paced rough and tumble world of the world’s fastest game.

Sports writer Dick Beddoes commented: “He was always there with the Detroit Red Wings, or Houston Aeros or Hartford Whalers or Team Canada ’74, skating with powerful ease, scoring goals from either side (he was ambidextrous), backhand or forehand, mean when he had to be.”

Mr. Howe appeared on the NHL scene in the 1946-47 season. Owner Jim Norris of the Detroit Red Wings negotiated with the young man from Floral, Saskatchewan by offering him as a signing bonus a Red Wings team jacket. In those times it was enough to convince the bright-eyed lad to sign on the dotted line. Oh how things have changed!

Norris knew what he was getting. Having seen young Howe stripped down in the dressing room, he commented, “young man, with your size, I could make you heavy weight champion of the world in 10 months.” The shy, retiring lad, muscles upon muscles, kindly declined. But he did go on to be the heavyweight champion in the NHL.

Just ask Leaping Lou Fontenato of the New York Rangers! Purported to be the toughest man in the League in the 1950s Lou was the Rangers’ “enforcer”. He was big, belligerent, tough and nasty. Many a tough guy hit the ice because of Mr. Fontenato. But one night in 1959, Lou made the wrong choice.

After a scrum between the Wings and the Rangers, Fontenato took exception to Howe’s tough play. He had fought and downed every tough guy in the NHL and now he wanted the “champion.” Referee Frank Udvari attempted to restrain him yelling “leave Howe alone! Use your head!” But Leaping Lou was not to be denied. “I want him!” Fontenato insisted. Udvari let him go. “Be my guest,” he said.

It didn’t take long. Beddoes described the result this way; “Fontenato’s nose took an abrupt detour. His cheekbone was fractured. He spit out several teeth like chiclets. Plastic surgeons had to re-arrange his face. Life magazine used six pages of pictures to show Howe’s cruel dominance of Fontenato.”

Few ever challenged Mr. Hockey again. Even in his last year at 52 years of age.

Virtually every fan is aware of the awesome physical powers of “The Greatest” but few know what a “softie” he was in everyday life. That may actually be his greatest legacy. Bob Duff, writing in the Windsor Star, quoted a fan as summing up Mr. Howe this way: “He was just the most common soul…loving, gracious, class.” He was shy to a fault but when he met new people he would put them at immediate ease with his quiet humble manner. Duff himself described him as “class and kindness.”

Andy Prest in Vancouver’s Northshore News described it as a kind of “mischievous kindness.” Gordie was a laid-back jokester who would surprise you with his subtle humour.

He was especially good with children. He seemed to graduate towards them and they towards him. He spent many hours visiting children with health issues. He was always able to make them laugh and when they did, Mr. Howe would display the biggest, greatest smile that would light up the hospital room. To him, this was fun and he himself once commented; “That’s one of my theories of life…you can get a lot of good things done having a lot of fun.”

Someone all fans know well, Ron MacLean, in a recent interview summed Mr. Hockey up this way: He will always be known for “his way with people,” “never ceased to amaze with his grace,” he was a “sensitive tender man.”

I listened to his son Murray (who eschewed hockey to become a doctor despite being a top prospect) who gave the eulogy at Gordie’s funeral which was widely televised. Part of Murray’s passionate speech were these snippets; “Kind, love of kids; helpful to neighbours without being asked; endless autographs; protected his kids; never raised his voice; loyal; a king of comebacks; listener; humble; his purpose was to serve people.” And who would know Gordie better than his youngest son? At one point he commented that although Gordie “didn’t lead the league in church attendance” he believed in Jesus and especially the statement, “let the little children come to me.” That was the philosophy of “Number 9,” that tough, hard, mean-on-ice hero. But he just might have been a larger person off the ice!

I have suggested that perhaps Murray knew Gordie best. In retrospect, I take that statement back. Although much negative publicity surrounded Howe’s late wife Colleen, perhaps some of her brashness came from knowing that her husband was essentially a “pushover” off the ice. From day one with the Wings, he was badgered by owner Jim Norris (and to some extent by Jack Adams later on).

I believe Colleen knew Gordie could be too kind, too easy in real life. She consequently seemed to take charge in minute detail of every aspect of Gordie’s off-ice life.

She was his “manager.” She was his protector and sometimes she seemed harsh and unyielding. She was in many a “fight” off the ice to shield her husband from people who would attempt to take advantage of his kind, easy, “aw shucks” personality. I believe she was willing to put up with the negativity of the media, the hockey big-wigs and detractors of all kinds because she felt it was her duty. I think Gordie knew this. When asked about Colleen, he simply said “I thank God for sending me this blonde,” yes, Gordie meant it to be humourous…or did he?

I have left Mr. Hockey’s on-ice heroics to the very last as most fans are aware of most of his achievements. But did you know this? In 1979 Gordie played (ANOTHER FIRST!) with sons Marty and Mark. They were with the New England (Hartford) Whalers. That particular day Mark’s wife had given birth to one of Gordie’s grandchildren. On their first shift of the night, Howe scored a goal assisted by son and new daddy Mark. Mr. Hockey made a remark that was all “Gordie”…something to the effect, “Well, heck, that’s a record for the fastest goal by a grandfather in professional hockey.” Yep that was the mischievous, kind, humourous Mr. Elbows.

Local former professional and present day Little Current businessman Don McCulloch played against Mr. Howe when Gordie (then with the Houston Aeros) was well into his forties. Mr. McCulloch marveled at the strength, speed and tenacity of a man in his forties playing pro hockey. Don chuckled that he wouldn’t have wanted to encounter him in his 30s. As it was, when McCulloch was playing for Vancouver Blazers in the WHA he said that he tasted some of Gordie’s nasty elbows! You weren’t alone, Donnie!

Wilbur ‘Peewee’ Oliver lives in retirement from the contracting industry in Little Current. As a young man playing for hometown Soo Greyhounds, Mr. Oliver was invited to a Detroit Red Wings training camp. He says that he would have been 18 then and Gordie Howe, also at the camp, 19. He has a fond memory of the day at that post-war hockey camp when he and the man who would go on to be known as Mr. Hockey sat together at a Detroit diner eating hamburgers and chatting amiably.

And now the easy part of this article! Easy because most fans are quite aware of Mr. Hockey’s on-ice accomplishments except maybe for that grandfather record! (LOL). But here are some statistical reminders:

Games, 2,186. Goals, 975. Assists, 1,383. Games with playoffs included, 2,421. Total goals, 1,071. Total assists, 1,518. 20-plus goal seasons, 27. 30-plus goal seasons, 18. First all-star, 12 in the NHL and two in the WHA. Second all-star, 9 in the WHA. Top scorer, 6 times in his NHL career. Hall of fame, June 1972. Order of Canada, 1972. Stanley Cups, 4.

Other interesting tidbits include the fact that: (i) He was a goalie until the age of 11 and 4 years later was at the Galt Red Wings Junior camp as a forward; (ii) In 1944-45, he worked as a munitions maker in a manufacturing plant in Galt. (iii) The following year, he played in the semi-pro USHL with the Omaha Knights; (iv) In his first NHL year he scored but 7 goals in 58 games. (v) Six years later he fired his highest total of 49 barely missing the then Richard record of 50; (vi) Despite their rivalry Gordie admired Richard and even named his dog “Robert”; (vii) Gordie had a brother (Vic) who played in the N.H.L. for the Rangers. (viii) Gordie played all those years with a steel plate in his head, from an altercation with the Leafs’ Ted Kennedy early in his career. They thought he would never play again. Oh how he fooled them, The “King of Comebacks” indeed.

Needless to say, we could go on ad infinitum with interesting facts and accomplishment carved into history by Mr. Howe. But that would be exhausting!

Howe’s prowess could be deceiving. If you went to see him once or twice, you might not see anything spectacular. He did not have the Gallic flair of Rocket Richard or the dipsy-doodle stick handling of that will-of-the-wisp Max Bentley. His forte was that he could do all things surprisingly well. He was not spectacular like a Bobby Hull or Guy Lafleur. But the sum of all the parts was overwhelming. He had a knack for simplifying the game with a subtle pass, a hard backcheck, a little slash to the ankle and magnificent hands around the net.

Howe, born in 1928, came into the world during the Great Depression. He knew hardship and want. It seemed he developed the demeanour of just simply “getting the job done.” He carried this over into his hockey. He was dependable, consistent, persistent, skilled and all of these attributes were bolstered by a tremendous work ethic. The total Howe was not only a total hockey player and Dad but also a total good human being.

The Windsor Star’s Bob Duff recently summed up Mr. Hockey as a person: “He set the standards for professional athletes everywhere. He was a class act.”

Surviving children Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray can be forever proud of their father.

R.I.P. Gordon Howe