On the ice, he was all business—and often all elbows. Off it, he was one of his game's most endearing and generous ambassadors
THE ALMIGHTY blew it this time.
Sure, vengeance might be His (Romans 12:19), but as the Creator vets His newest recruit—a powerful, stooped-shouldered man with an easy smile and old-fashioned values forged in Depression-era Saskatchewan—He would be well-advised to skim the Book of Gordie. Verse 1: Do not mess with Gordie Howe. Howe, who died last Friday at age 88 in Ohio, had a memory as long as his unparalleled career, which touched five decades and included seven MVP awards in two leagues. Heaven might be a swell place, full of cherubim and gaping five holes, but if Mr. Hockey suspects that he was taken from us too soon, that he could have gotten yet another day out of his rich life ... well, the Supreme Being should start skating with his head up, you know?
Howe has eternity to fix somebody's wagon, not just the mere decade he needed to settle an old score with Bobby Baun. In the 1957--58 season Baun, a rugged Maple Leafs defenseman, nailed Howe, who had been cutting into the middle to take a shot, with a seismic check. Ten seasons later Baun was earning a living with the expansion Oakland Seals when Howe again cut to the middle. Fool Gordie once, shame on you. Fool Gordie twice, a Zamboni might be scraping up your teeth. This time Howe released his shot and held his follow-through long enough for his stick blade to carve G.H. into Baun's throat. As a supine Baun gasped for breath, the Red Wings' star straddled him and growled, "Now we're even, you s.o.b."
There were times when truculence moved Howe to apologize, as it did on one occasion in 1979--80, when, at age 51, he returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers (and scored 15 goals, by the way). Howe, who by then was poetry in slow motion, raked his stick across the chin of Bob Miller after the Bruins' center had the effrontery to steal the puck from him. Miller left the ice late in the second period, leaking blood. When Boston's veterans inquired about his fresh zipper during intermission, a credulous Miller replied, "Gordie got me ... but he said he was sorry."
The room erupted in laughter.
"Then," said Brad McCrimmon, who was a Bruins defenseman that year, "it was show-and-tell time."
Somebody pointed to some missing teeth ... Gordie.
Another player displayed a scar ... Gordie.
A bent nose ... Gordie.
Said McCrimmon, "There'd be Gordie, blinking—you know how he was always blinking?—and he'd say, 'Sorry, kid.' Gordie was sorry a lot."
Mark Howe knows the stories well. "The inevitable question I got was how Dad would have done if he'd played today," says Mark, a Hall of Fame NHL defenseman who played with his father in the World Hockey Association for six seasons, beginning in 1973--74. "I always would say that he couldn't play today because he would have been suspended all the time. He might break a guy's jaw with his elbow, take out his teeth, cut him up real bad. Honestly, he was the nastiest person I ever saw on a pair of skates. He also was a completely different human being when he didn't have them on."
This is the Gordie that Mark fondly remembers. In the late 1960s, when his father was earning, he guesses, $25,000 or $30,000 a year with Detroit, Mark would join Gordie mid-trip during the latter's annual cross-Canada tour of Eaton's department stores. Upon returning to the hotel room each night, Howe would autograph as many as 2,500 cards so the next day he could spend extra seconds joshing with the children in line rather than looking down and writing his name.
Howe genuinely enjoyed people, at least the ones, unlike the estimable Dave Keon, who didn't steal the puck from him. (Keon, maybe the cleanest player in hockey, once pick-pocketed Howe twice in a game. After the second time, his Toronto teammates sidled three feet away from Keon on the bench as if to signal to Howe that his larceny hadn't been their idea. The third time Keon tried to take the puck, Howe put him in the hospital with an elbow.) When a reporter from Montreal was bumped from an oversold Pilgrim Airlines flight that was carrying the Whalers to Philadelphia during Howe's NHL comeback season—teams flew commercial then—Howe, seeing that there was another plane scheduled to take off in 2½ hours, told the team that he would catch the next one with the newspaper guy so that they could sit and chat. Howe always left an impression, whether with his simple kindness or with his elbows.
Howe was a less prolific scorer than Wayne Gretzky, who blew past his record of 801 NHL goals in 1994 and played for another five seasons. (Howe also scored 174 goals in six WHA seasons.) He did not dazzle like Bobby Orr or even Maurice Richard, an early rival who had more flair but not the well-rounded game of a man who made his NHL debut during Harry Truman's administration and retired in the final year of Jimmy Carter's. While his desire to keep playing with sons Mark and Marty made Howe's final years a quixotic journey—even though he was the WHA's MVP at age 45—longevity certainly added heft to the impressive numbers he amassed with the Red Wings. Howe ranked among the NHL's top five in scoring in 20 seasons, and he won four Stanley Cups and two Avco Cups in the WHA. Between the two leagues he assisted on 1,383 goals and engaged in 22 fights. Curiously, he scored a goal, chipped in an assist and engaged in a fight in the same game just twice, but the combination of these hockey arts is still memorialized as a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Was he the best ever? Maybe. Gretzky and Orr publicly have endorsed the idea, and Scotty Bowman has made the same claim.
Of course, only the Big Guy can sit in judgment (James 4:12), but when picking teams for celestial games of shinny, He will make sure Gordie is on His wing. Just in case.
HEAVEN MIGHT BE A SWELL PLACE, BUT IF MR. HOCKEY SUSPECTS HE WAS TAKEN FROM US TOO SOON, THE SUPREME BEING SHOULD START SKATING WITH HIS HEAD UP, YOU KNOW?