EDMONTON — Milt Spector came from a little place called Springside, Sask., and one of the memories his son has of skating with his dad was, he always had those weird yellow laces in his brown and black tube skates. The same ones that Alex Ovechkin wears today.
Milt was born into what was soon to become affirmed Gordie Howe country back in 1926, about 300 km southeast of Floral, Sask., where Howe would be born two years later.
Nearly 50 years later, when the Houston Aeros would roll through Edmonton back in the old World Hockey Association, that Springside boy would walk from his optometric practice office in the Tegler Building down to Mike’s News. He’d buy a pair of tickets and take his son to the Northlands Coliseum to see the man they called Mr. Hockey, on a line with his two sons, Mark and Marty.
Gordie Howe was in town and you went to the rink. It’s just what you did.
Tonight that Edmonton father will take his son to watch the man — Alex Ovechkin — who will one day pass Wayne Gretzky to become the National Hockey League’s all-time leading goal scorer. First, however, he will have pass the great Gordie Howe — likely some time around the turning of the calendar.
“Gordie Howe,” marvelled Connor McDavid. “You just say his name and you know what it means to the game of hockey, and he’s about pass him. It’s a … pretty amazing feat.”
There are so many records today that we didn’t even keep track of when my dad was following a six-team NHL with an AM radio and a grainy Saturday night feed that arrived about an hour after the puck had dropped out in Toronto or Montreal.
But this one — as Ovechkin sits just eight goals behind Mr. Hockey — transcends generations of hockey history.
It’s taken Ovechkin a few years to realize just who he’s hunting down here, who it is he trails by a count of 793 goals to Howe’s 801. But Ovechkin didn’t have a Mike’s News, or a World Hockey Association, as a kid growing up in Moscow.
What did he know about the great Gordie Howe back then?
“Obviously, not much over there,” Ovechkin said on Monday. “When I was growing up, there was no TV. We didn’t see NHL games, or (they were) only on videotapes. And that’s only highlights. Of course, we all know Lemieux, Gretzky, (Pavel) Bure, of course, the Russian players. When you came here, you hear all the stories. The big, big names out there.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool to be in this company.”
His eyes light up when he is asked to tell the story of the first time he met Gordie.
“Yeah, it was in Montreal. All-Star Game. I still have a picture he signed for me. It’s pretty special.”
It’s funny, isn’t it?
Ovechkin is a closer comparable to Howe than Gretzky, as a big, strong right-winger who overpowers his opponents more than he ever beat them with finesse. Howe didn’t have the tools to be the shooter that Ovechkin has become, not with a straight stick for much of his career.
Ovechkin’s legacy will be a complicated one, as it will be difficult to mention his on-ice accomplishments without acknowledging some geopolitical missteps off it. But in the here and now, Ovechkin is the one the kids grow up idolizing. The one they’ll tell their grandkids they played against one night.
“I already ask for (an Ovechkin) stick,” said young Klim Kostin, an Oilers winger of Russian descent. “I just wanted to make a gift to my dad.”
“He’s one of the legends who is still playing,” said Leon Draisaitl, who has taken ownership of that plot of ice in the right faceoff circle the way Ovechkin owns the left.
It is no secret that both are there and both are waiting for their one-timers as the power play sets up. But first Ovechkin, and now Draisaitl, have proven that simply being aware of the threat does not equate to stopping it.
“Ovechkin is really smart in the way he positions himself, to release the puck. That’s something I’ve sort of picked up out of his game,” said Draisaitl. “He’s playing with good players, I’m playing with good players. They know when is the best time to get me the puck.”
“A lot of times it’s about the pass as much as the shot,” he continued. “It’s in your wheelhouse, it’s quick, it’s right off your stick. It pops. And if you play with certain guys for a long time (as Ovechkin has), they’re in sync on when he’s ready to unload. It’s the same with us.”
Ovechkin is the Howe in this relationship, Draisaitl the young Aeros fan.
But, on the morning of the meeting between the NHL’s two most significant power-play snipers (apologies, Auston Matthews), Ovechkin is willing to include Draisaitl as a contemporary.
“He’s a lefty, I’m right. It’s a totally different picture,” Ovechkin began. “But yeah, it’s, it seems that it’s easy, but it’s not. You have to find the right spot at the right moment, and obviously your teammates have to find you in the right way.”
Howe may have said it differently, but Gordie couldn’t have said it better.
It’s a long way to Floral, to Moscow, and back to Edmonton. But here we are.
Puck drops at 6:30 p.m. MT. Bring your kid.