Gordie Howe noticed a Red Wings player on new head coach Mike Babcock’s bench smiling after a loss in Detroit.
Mr. Hockey entered Babcock’s office after the game, sat down and told him he wasn’t impressed with what he saw out of that player.
“Why don’t you look after that?” Babcock said.
“Don’t worry,” Howe said, “I already did.”
Growing up in Saskatchewan, the breeding ground for so many of Canada’s hockey icons, a young Babcock had crossed paths with Mr. Howe on several occasions, but it wasn’t until he became head coach of the Red Wings in 2005 that he really got to know Gordie. Howe was forever around his sons, and Mark Howe worked as a pro scout for the Wings at the time.
Babcock told Hockey Central at Noon Friday how special it was to spend so much time with the man.
“He’s a gentleman, that’s all there is to it. He had a love affair with his sons and with hockey and with the fans,” Babcock said. “When you’re around these great, great people and great former players, their passion just oozes out of them. That was obvious when you’re around Gordie.”
Now coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Babcock stressed how special it is for young NHL players to be around legends who still love the game.
The first time Howe met Mike Babcock’s son, the boy was nine. Gordie shook the boy’s hand, elbowed him in the head, and said, “Keep your head on a swivel, son.”
“He had a way with people to connect, that made you feel good, and wasn’t shy about talking about family or the game or fishing,” Babcock said. “Shared his thoughts and his time with everyone.”
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Babcock struggled to find a modern-day comparison for a player so skilled, so enduring, so fast, so mean, and so big. Think of the longevity. Think of the forearms.
“He was Man Mountain. He was a genetic freak for that time,” Babcock said. “When he was around us, he was a lot of fun to be around, and didn’t mind sharing any of his wisdom or thoughts on the game.”
Jaromir Jagr, who broke Howe’s record for most points by a right wing this season, or Chris Chelios might be the closest comparables. But even those greats are a stretch.
“The game is so different today. Number 1, you couldn’t get away with what he did. You’d be suspended forever,” Babcock said. “This guy was flat-out mean. He was mean right till the end. You didn’t take advantage of him or his kids.”