Felix Gatt couldn’t speak. He could hardly move. But he opened his eyes in that hospital bed, turned his head and saw the legend sitting there, the same man he’d chased down in the hallway after a Detroit Red Wings game at Olympia Stadium six decades earlier. Gordie Howe had smiled at Gatt back then, just as he smiled at him now. Howe sat in that chair for hours, watching over Gatt after he suffered a severe stroke that pushed him to the edge of death. Doctors and nurses peeked into the room, whispering that, yes, it was true—Mr. Hockey was really in their hospital. But he wasn’t there to sign autographs or pose for pictures. Not this time, though he certainly didn’t turn them away. Howe was there because the fan who had become his closest friend was lying in a hospital bed with his life hanging in the balance.
"The whole damn hospital was in my room," Gatt laughed as he recalled this story a few years later. It was late 2011, and we were chatting for a feature I was writing on the winter of Howe’s life. It seemed odd to me, at first, to think of a hockey legend becoming so close with a fan. But after speaking with Gatt, I spent a couple of days with Howe at his son Murray’s house in Ohio. Mr. Hockey was sweeping in the garage when I first met him. We shook hands—his were large and still seemed strong despite being plagued with arthritis. I’d been nervous on the long drive to meet him, but immediately he made me feel like a guest, a friend, not a reporter about to mine through the private layers of his life. We sat down at the kitchen table, next to a puzzle of a countryside home, and Murray made us hot chocolate. Five hours later, I left feeling like I’d travelled through all the years of hockey’s most celebrated life. Howe held his miniature poodle, Rocket, all afternoon. He let me wear his Stanley Cup ring and feel the soft spots in his skull from years of beatings on the ice, and also his elbows, inflamed after years of inflicting wounds on others.
Legends, I’d thought, were supposed to exist outside the realm of the common man. They were like rare items in a museum, on display for our admiration and a quick photo, but nothing more. Howe was a walking piece of history, after all. He was the star who came before Orr and Gretzky; the one who battled Maurice Richard and played the game in black-and-white. He was iconic. But here he was, sharing hot chocolate with me and laughing about a dog he’d named after his rival. I believe that anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Howe, even just for an autograph or a photo, understands what I felt that afternoon. This was a special man, not just because of what he did on the ice. He was special because he understood that he sat in a rare, privileged place—that he, unlike most, got to live out his dream—and that the smallest connection could mean so much. And so he held your hand tight when he shook it. He made you laugh when you took a photo with him. He took off his Stanley Cup ring and slipped it on your finger.
The fans were a part of the job that he genuinely loved. Gatt knew this more than anyone, of course. He knew it long before Howe sat in a hospital bed next to his for days after that stroke. In a pack of fans after a game at the old Olympia, Gatt’s request for a signature was rejected by Terry Sawchuk. Howe pulled the surly Red Wings goaltender aside. "Terry, you sign that for him or else I’m going to break both your arms and legs," Gatt, who was in his early teens at the time, heard Howe say. "You’ll never play hockey again." Sawchuk took the program and signed it.
In the summer months, Howe and his wife, Colleen, would take their four kids—Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray—across Canada on signing tours, stopping at every Eaton’s department store from coast to coast. It was an extra source of cash for the star, whose salary averaged between $25,000 and $30,000 through the prime of his career. But it was more than that. Every night, Howe returned to his hotel room and signed up to 2,000 greeting cards and photos to give to fans the next day. He wanted to make sure he had time to speak with each fan—to tell a joke and throw an elbow. It was as much a joy for him as it was for the fans who flocked to him. The Howe family would drive from town to town, sometimes visiting two or three a day. "Dad’s always had a certain mystique," Mark, now a Hall of Famer himself, told me. "I’ve only met a few people in life who have that. And it’s not something they work at. It’s natural. That’s what makes Dad so special." Sometimes, Howe would visit children in the cancer ward at local hospitals. "They’d take you into a room and say, ‘This child will be lucky to live another seven days,’" Mark said. "And by the end of Dad’s visit, the kid would be crying from laughing so hard."
We remember Gordie Howe for the 2,421 games he played. For the 975 goals and 1,383 assists in the regular season, stretching into an untouchable five decades of pro hockey. We remember him for his vicious elbows and polite humility. For his four Stanley Cups. For his physical longevity. For conquering the limits we face. We remember Mr. Hockey for the memories—for the thrills we were alive to see, and for those sepia-toned tales passed down through the generations. We remember him for being the greatest player the game had known and, when that was done, for remaining
Mr. Hockey until it was finally time to go.
Because he loved that role: "Mr. Hockey." It wasn’t just a nickname. It was an identity. Howe personified the game. Consider the beginning, so modest and pastoral: Born on March 31, 1928, in Floral, Sask., a tiny village southeast of Saskatoon. He was one of nine children in a poor family trying to survive the Great Depression. Howe stuffed newspapers and magazines into his socks to use as shin pads. His mother saved up money for months to buy him his first pair of skates. He and other local kids played outdoors with a tennis ball, which would be warmed in a neighbour’s oven when it froze.
Howe went from newspaper shin pads to newspaper headlines. He was signed by the Detroit Red Wings when he was just 16 years old and began playing with the team in 1946, when he was 18. He was an unusual mix of size and skill—a right-winger who intimidated opponents with his ability to both score and hit. His gracious nature disappeared on the ice. He was feared. And resilient. His career, and life, were almost cut short in 1950, when he had a violent collision with Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy during a playoff game. Then 21, Howe lay unconscious on the ice, covered in blood gushing from his head. Doctors thought the hemorrhage might kill him. The next season, he won the scoring title.
Mr. Hockey was still playing pro hockey almost 30 years later. In 1980, Howe returned to Detroit for his 23rd All-Star Game. He was 51 and preparing to retire at the end of the season. He was introduced last for the Prince of Wales Conference. "And from the Hartford Whalers…" the announcer said, and the fans were on their feet before he could finish. Mr. Hockey skated onto the ice in his white all-star jersey, the only player with grey hair. "Representing all of hockey with great distinction for five decades—No. 9!"
The fans erupted as they had so many times before. They roared as Howe meekly waved, looked to the ice and skated to the bench, not knowing how to stop their praise.
"Gordie, Gordie, Gordie, Gordie," they chanted.
And the cheers kept coming, as though they’d never stop.
"Just listen to these Detroit fans," the announcer said. "They’re still on their feet. This ovation may never end."
It continued through the next three decades, as Howe remained part of the game—applause and adoration whenever he appeared. But after Colleen passed away in 2009, Howe fell into a deep depression and took some time away from the spotlight. The Howe children worried about their father, unsure whether he’d be able to pull himself out of the agony of losing the woman he’d depended on for more than 60 years. Felix Gatt would go for walks with him, trying to bring him back. Nothing worked. It wasn’t until Howe returned to a near-constant circuit of autograph signings and special appearances that the joy in his eyes returned. Even as his health diminished through his 80s and the effects of dementia set in, Howe remained happiest in the presence of fans. As much as we adored what Howe gave the game, Howe loved what the game gave to him: us.