|Gordie Howe chats with the media in Kamloops on Wednesday.|
(Photo by Keith Anderson / Kamloops Daily News)
More than 30 years have passed since Gordie Howe played his last competitive hockey game.
It was a playoff game with the NHL’s Hartford Whalers in the spring of 1980.
All these years later, Mr. Hockey remains larger than life.
To a certain segment of our population, having Gordie Howe walk among them is like rubbing shoulders with Captain America or Sgt. Rock. There was a time when Howe was as mythical as any of those comic book characters.
Believe it or not, hockey didn’t use to be on TV every night. Back in the day, Hockey Night in Canada meant one game on a Saturday night. For a while, there also was a Wednesday night game on CTV but that didn’t have near the cachet of Foster Hewitt and Saturday night.
If you wanted hockey news, you subscribed to The Hockey News, and who cared that it always was a week or two after the fact.
Gordie Howe, who will turn 84 on March 31, was a true icon.
You knew Mr. Hockey was an icon because your elbow and shoulder pads came out of the Eaton’s catalogue. Why? Because those were the ones Gordie Howe wore in the pictures in that same catalogue.
Mr. Hockey, sans elbow pads, was at Interior Savings Centre on Wednesday. He met with the media for a bit of a gabfest in the afternoon and later, with the Kamloops Blazers playing the Spokane Chiefs, rubbed shoulders with folks, signed some things and threw the odd elbow. Hey, old habits and all that.
Howe always will be remembered as the greatest of all the Detroit Red Wings. Never mind that he later played for the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros and New England Whalers, before finishing up with the NHL’s Whalers at the age of 52.
With the Red Wings, Howe played on the Production Line, alongside Sid Abel, ol’ Bootnose, and Ted Lindsay, who was Scarface long before Al Pacino. Later, Alex Delvecchio, who was affectionately known as Fats, replaced Abel. In time, Frank Mahovlich, the Big M, took over from Lindsay.
And then, on Jan. 13, 1971, the Red Wings traded Mahovlich to the Montreal Canadiens for forwards Mickey Redmond, Bill Collins and Guy Charron.
Charron, today the Blazers’ head coach, had split the season between the Canadiens and their AHL affiliate, the Montreal Voyageurs.
When Detroit head coach Doug Barkley called, Charron expected he would be told to report to the Red Wings’ Central league affiliate, the Fort Worth Wings.
“He said, ‘No, you’re going to play with Howe and Delvecchio tomorrow night,’ ” Charron recalls. “I think I might have choked on the phone.”
Charron made his Detroit debut in a 2-2 tie with the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I travelled on game day and played with Howe and Delvecchio that night,” Charron says. “I’ll never forget it.
“Alex set me up with a breakaway . . . and I hit the goal post.”
Charron remembers sitting in Detroit’s locker-room before the game.
“I’m basically a rookie and I’m minding my own business, a French-Canadian boy,” Charron recalls. “Gordie came up and both him and Alex said, ‘You know, don’t worry about it. You’re going to play with us. Just do your thing and we’ll adapt to you.’ ”
Charron, who was 10 days from his 21st birthday, was dumbstruck. Jean, his older brother by 18 years, was thrilled. Howe always had been his favourite player. Guy, a 5-foot-10 left winger, preferred Dick Duff, who was about his size and played the same position for the beloved Canadiens in the late-1960s.
Later, the Red Wings were playing the Bruins in Boston.
“I’m a gung-ho 21-year-old kid,” Charron says with a chuckle. “We’re in Boston and Gordie’s in a corner. I had heard of his reputation but you’re going to try to go in and help out.
“We came back to the bench and he said, ‘Guy, when I’m in the corner, don’t worry about coming in. Just be in position to get the puck.’ ”
Charron pauses. Then he laughs.
“I always tell people that’s why I never went in the corners,” he says. “Gordie Howe told me not to.”
Even today, there is reverence in Charron’s voice when he talks of Howe.
“He was always an awesome man,” Charron says. “He’s a very special man.”
In retirement, Howe has proved to be everything we hope our heroes will be. He also turned out to be mortal, just like the rest of us, although most of us can only hope to carry ourselves with such grace in our golden years.
For so many years, his wife, Colleen, had stood by her man and dictated the terms by which others could share him. Then, when Colleen was struck by Pick’s disease, a horrible affliction with similarities to Alzheimer’s, Howe stood by her, all but refusing to leave her side as he cared for her.
Colleen was 76 when she died on March 6, 2009, leading to what surely has been the three toughest years of Howe’s life.
Now he spends time with his four children — daughter Cathy and sons Murray, Mark and Marty — and their families. He tried going it alone but the home he and Colleen had shared for so long is too empty without her.
The last while, he has been with Marty in Hartford. Marty now looks after his father’s bookings and travel arrangements. Marty is always at his father’s side, too. Gordie’s voice now is as quiet as a skate blade cutting through butter. These days, it’s hard to picture Gordie as an NHLer who, according to Marty, lived by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
“If I was hit, I was going to hit back,” Gordie says and, just for a moment, that steely-eyed look flashes across his visage. Then he chuckles.
Gordie is at an age where thoughts oftentimes are fleeting, so Marty is there to help. When Gordie’s mind wanders, Marty, who’ll be 58 on Feb. 18, often finishes the thought.
They’ll be in Vancouver today — the Red Wings play the Canucks there tonight and there is some promotional work to do with Baycrest, a firm that deals with “innovations in aging and brain health.” On Friday, Gordie will be honoured at a game between the Blazers and Vancouver Giants. He and Giants majority owner Ron Toigo are friends.
While his four children share him, he continues to share himself with his game and his fans, as he was doing last night at Interior Savings Centre.
As you watch him, you realize that in the twilight of his life, the arena is his home, hockey people are his friends. You realize that this is where he is most comfortable, that he needs the people now the way the people once needed him.
We only hope that we can give back to him what he once gave to us.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at email@example.com, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)