Wayne Gretzky spoke of being on a WHA PR junket with Gordie and Bobby Hull in New York City. By chance they met Muhammad Ali in a hotel lobby, and as The Great One told it, Ali certainly knew who Gordie was. By 1978, Ali was winding his career down, and Howe still had two years of hockey to play.
But it reminded me that we are witnessing and paying our respects to a new level of athlete. Howe and Ali were some of the first and the greatest to be watched en masse. They played on Fridays and Saturdays in our living room or family room or basements, where the television lived. And to most, that is where they lived.
No one used the television better than Ali. His time with Howard Cosell became legendary and intertwined in all of Ali’s lore. And no longer was Howe playing in front of 16,000 at the Olympia, he was playing for hundreds of thousands, then millions on the tube. So many more people could see his exploits in the corners, along the boards and in front of the net. It was players like Howe who made that first intermission interview with Tom Foley and Frank Selke Jr., or Ward Cornell so special. We could actually talk to a star of the game, live between periods, with his skates on, and the sweat running down his face (in black and white by the way).
We met Gordie Howe. We knew Gordie Howe. We liked Gordie Howe.
In paying respect to both great men, it is with a sombreness that one realizes we are going to see more of these in the future. We knew this first “TV Generation” of athletes so much better than we did the previous group of stars, and that’s because in the late 1950s and 1960s, we saw them too.
With television and athletes such as Howe and Ali, the games men played became a much bigger business. Expansion. Pay Per View. Cable. All on the broad backs of the men like The Greatest and Mr. Hockey. Ali’s Ring victories and Howe’s Wing victories became the discussion the next day at the office. Everybody could offer an opinion, because now everybody had a front row seat.
In the late ’50s, the three sports staples of television in the United States were boxing, horse racing and hockey. Howe was a big part of that.
In his remarks, Gretzky also noted Howe’s importance in growing hockey in the United States. On the backs of greats like Howe, Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau, the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967. More people could enjoy Howe’s exploits in person and on TV.
Howe’s legacy as a player is only surpassed by Howe the person. It’s impressive he played until he was 52 years old. But it’s more impressive that, after retiring, he went on being Mr. Hockey for another 36 years, talking to everyone, signing autographs until there were no more to be signed. That took stamina and heart-felt human kindness. He was the blueprint that every athlete wanted to copy, but few could. No one had the patience or professionalism to do it. That’s why we all have a Gordie Howe story. And they all go like this: “We met. He shook my hand. And we are friends.”
The key point in all of this is that great athletes can touch so many more people than they realize, if they want to. Howe understood that. He also understood his role in growing the game in the infancy of television. And while TV made that possible, I wonder if men like Howe and Ali actually made television, more than television made them.