As I write this, I’m on board United Airlines 5537 from Pittsburgh to Chicago.
I learned of Gordie Howe’s passing about an hour ago (11 a.m. ET).
Don Cherry is seated next to me and is recalling the time in 1963 he attended Red Wings training camp in Detroit. As he took to the ice for the first practice, Don felt his new jock and pants combination was binding, so he reached down into the front of his pants to make an adjustment.
Howe skated by and whispered, “Ya having a tough time finding it?”
That is so Gordie. Always a quip, forever finding ways to put you at ease.
Gordie went on to become the greatest NHL player of his time, but he held the crown without pretence. He was a child of the Great Depression. When he was five-years-old, a woman showed up at the Howe home in Saskatoon with a pillow case stuffed with clothes she was desperately trying to peddle.
Gordie’s folks were just scraping by themselves, but somehow Gordie’s mom cobbled together three dollars and bought the whole bag without examining its contents.
Mrs. Howe brought the bag into the kitchen and emptied it on the floor. Out fell a rusty old pair of hockey skates.
And that’s how it began.
Gordie and his sister each wore a single skate and went gliding on a nearby slough. Because of these humble first steps, Gordie was not an instant star. He was such a poor skater early on he played in goal until he was 11. But he was a great all-around athlete and he was bigger than most of the kids. By the time Gordie was a teenager he was turning heads. On the eve of his 15th birthday, his father, Ab, arranged a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. He impressed Wings general manager Jack Adams sufficiently to earn a spot with their junior farm team in Galt, ON. Sadly, the Ontario Hockey Association had restrictions on the number of Western players Ontario clubs could dress, so Gordie only practiced with the team that first season.
He worked in a munitions factory, played one or two exhibition games, and trained with the team. Jack Adams admired Gordie’s willingness to stick it out, and the following year, he offered him a contract to turn pro.
You likely know the story; bare minimum wage and the promise of a team jacket.
Gordie’s impact on the game is written in the record books and enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but it’s his way with people that lingers. The greatest junior coach ever, Brian Kilrea, once attended Red Wings Camp. Gordie drove Brian to a few of the practices and for the rest of his career Kilrea honoured Howe’s kindness by taping the blades of his sticks with exactly nine wraps of tape, to keep No. 9’s example at hand.
My longtime colleague Harry Neale coached Gordie in Hartford in the WHA.
Gordie and his sons Mark and Marty were on the team. The Howes always kept it professional, never using the words “dad” or “son” in the dressing room. But one night in Quebec City, a Nordiques defenceman fell and Mark, who was playing left wing right in front of the Whalers bench, hollered to Gordie, “Dad!”
Gordie, playing right wing, was just crossing his own blue line.
He hit Mark with a tape-to-tape pass in stride and Mark went on a breakaway and scored. Crusty old Whalers veterans Dave Keon and John McKenzie smiled.
As a boy, I worshipped Howe. I bought True Line skates and gloves at Eaton’s. I ordered Northland sticks, the ones Howe used. As a broadcaster, I worked so many events with Gordie and he never ceased to amaze with his grace.
On the ice he had the ferocity that is the life force of any athlete or artist, but he was first and foremost a sensitive, tender man.
His favourite saying was, “I believe in the turtle approach. Be hard on the outside, soft on the inside and be willing to stick your neck out to get ahead.”
Last week we lost Muhammad Ali, and now Gordie. “The Greatest” is a wonderful moniker, but in Canada, in sport, you could not be given a more important title than “Mr. Hockey.”
That would make him the one in charge of our little heaven.
The kind one conjures up as your head hits the pillowcase.