If you are a sports fan, you measure life in seasons, in careers, in debuts and retirements as well as by the calendar.
You saw Wayne Gretzky when he was a kid and you were a kid, and now you note that he’s now a grandfather, and that he’s started to look an awful lot like his dad, Wally.
Look in the mirror, pal. There’s a message waiting for you there.
But Gordie Howe messed with time.
Consider this. As a boy, my favourite hockey player was Peter Mahovlich, who was then a large, awkward prospect with a famous last name apprenticing with the Hamilton Red Wings, Detroit’s junior affiliate back in the days when it worked that way.
Mahovlich was born in October 1946. Six days later, Howe, a fresh-faced kid from Floral, Sask., played his first NHL game and scored his first goal. In the Detroit newspapers, they called him “Gordon.”
By the early ’60s, when Big Pete was playing junior in Hamilton, Howe was already an old man in hockey terms. He had been with the Wings for nearly two decades, already a remarkable feat. He possessed a unique combination of skill, strength and a mean streak, the undisputed star of a dynastic Detroit team in the 1950s, and by the end of that decade he was already considered the greatest hockey player who had ever lived. But his best days were behind him. His old rival, Maurice Richard, had been retired for several years. Howe had a receding hairline. He looked sort of like my dad.
Pete Mahovlich figured things out, graduated to Detroit, was traded to Montreal and left the NHL in 1981 at the end of a long and very distinguished career—16 seasons, four Stanley Cups, the 1972 Summit Series, the 1976 Canada Cup, the famous New Year’s Eve game against the Red Army. He was 34 when he played his last big-league game, by then back with the Wings.
That came less than a season after Howe’s final retirement, after Howe had played out the string with the Red Wings, unhappily worked at a front-office job, then bolted for the rebel World Hockey Association where he played with his sons Mark and Marty, where he again became an elite scorer. He played against the Russians in the WHA’s own summit series, he was an all-star, and when the NHL finally absorbed its competitor, he came back for one last go ’round, including a triumphant return to Detroit, before finally saying goodbye.
His clock, it turned out, ran differently to the rest of ours.
I met Howe for the first time not too many years after that. He was barnstorming, making appearances with minor-league professional teams, putting on the uniform, participating in the pre-game skate, signing autographs and shaking hands. The NHL, quietly, wasn’t all that happy about it. They didn’t like having one of their icons hustling for a buck in what they considered an undignified fashion—no small irony, given the way Howe was exploited for so long by the Red Wings, given that he didn’t get paid what he was worth until he joined the WHA, given that he obviously needed the money, and that he was having fun.
He was with his wife, Colleen, and it’s no overstatement to call them two halves of a whole. Howe needed her, needed her brain and her steel will and her undying support. They became Mr. and Mrs. Hockey—a brand-building exercise, really, which became a registered trademark, but who was going to argue? They were a team within a team wherever Howe played, and when Colleen was later diminished by dementia, when she died, he became a bit of a lost soul, all of his friends would say.
It was something, standing there, shaking his hand, looking at that famous mug, that famous smile, encountering a sweet, simple guy who stood like a great, ancient tree in the forest, whose life in hockey encompassed my entire life and considerably more than that, who was still very much part of the sports conversation 40 or so years after he debuted with the Red Wings.
It made me feel old and made me feel young and made me believe for a moment that some things can go on forever—even if right now we understand that they don’t.