June 10, 2016
Memories of Gordie Howe, from hockey
at JLA to an encounter at Canoe Marathon
By KEITH GAVE
I was sitting in the press box at Joe Louis Arena, staring intently at the screen on my laptop and typing furiously in an attempt to beat another wicked deadline to get my story about the Red Wings in the next morning’s Detroit Free Press. And all of a sudden, boom! I felt a sharp pain in right side. As I caught my balance to keep from falling, I turned just in time to see a face I had known my entire life.
Gordie Howe never looked my way after his special greeting, but he was grinning. I’d just taken a shot to the ribs from the guy with the most famous elbows in hockey. I was probably five years into my career as a hockey writer at the Freep, but that’s the moment I felt like I’d arrived, like I belonged. In my world of sports, as for millions of others, they came no bigger than Mr. Hockey, and it was a privilege to get to know a man I had put on a pedestal since he was leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cup glory in one of the great dynasties in sports in the 1950s.
I lost my hero today. Gordie Howe died at his son Murray’s home near Toledo this morning, surrounded by his beloved family. He was 88.
This is a sorrowful moment for all of hockey, especially for Red Wings fans around Detroit and so many friends and neighbors around Grayling, where Gordie and Colleen raised their kids in the summers. But I prefer to be thankful for the last 18 months or so, a bonus gift of time with Gordie thanks to his immense physical strength – and the wonders of science.
In late October 2014, the Howe family was making funeral plans after Gordie suffered a massive stroke that left him in grave condition. But as he hung on, unable to speak, feed himself or stand on his own, the family decided to try experimental stem-cell therapy available in Mexico. So they flew him to San Diego and drove him down to Mexico for the treatment.
A few days later, he walked by himself to the plane that carried him home. By the holidays, Gordie was walking through the supermarket while his family shopped for groceries. He was making conversation and eating everything they put in front of him. He was raking the lawn. He was stickhandling a cloth puck around the house with a hockey stick. Murray, a physician, called it a Christmas miracle. Who could argue?
By February, Gordie Howe was able to make a public appearance back in Saskatoon, near his home town in Saskatchewan. More than a year later, though frail and battling worsening dementia, he attended one of the Wings’ playoff games. Miracle indeed.
As hockey players go, Gordie Howe stands at the top of the pyramid. He played most of his Hall of Fame career in Detroit, but retired when the franchise was heading south under coach Ned Harkness in the early 1970s. But by the time sons Mark and Marty were entering professional
hockey, Gordie unretired and played on a line with both his boys for the Houston Aeros in the World Hockey Association.
In Hartford, Gordie and Mark played together with the WHA’s Whalers. That team was coached by Harry Neale, who also guided the Red Wings briefly in 1985 before beginning his career as the lead analyst for Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.
Neale was behind the bench that night in the 1979-80 season in Hartford when Gordie had the puck on his stick back in his own zone when he heard a familiar voice calling for a pass.
“Dad. . . Dad!” Mark Howe was yelling, tapping his stick on the ice as he split the defense toward open ice. And with the flick of his strong wrists, the father feathered the puck ahead with a perfect, tape-to-tape pass that sent the younger Howe in all alone on a helpless goaltender. The son scored the goal, assisted by his father.
Neale was one of the game’s smartest and funniest people, and he has probably told that story a thousand times – and never without a tear in his eye.
Gordie Howe put Detroit on the hockey-playing map in the 1950s, leading the Red Wings to several Stanley Cup titles while piling up more goals and points than anyone in the history of the game until Wayne Gretzky came along. More than a gifted scorer and playmaker,
Howe was one of the most feared players in the game, and opponents gave him – and his teammates – a wide berth when he was on the ice.
Score a goal, earn an assist, get in a fight? For the better part of 60 years, that’s been known as a Gordie Howe hat trick. He played hard. He played to win. Go into the corners with him and you might come out with a cracked rib from those elbows or needing a few stitches. He could be especially mean, dangerous like a papa bear, if you messed with one of his boys.
Some even suggest that Howe couldn’t play in today’s NHL because he’d be suspended all the time. Too many cameras following the games these days.
Late in life, Gordie became a fixture around Joe Louis Arena in the twilight of Mark’s career, which ended with the Red Wings. Eventually, Mark would join his father in the Hockey Hall of Fame, too.
Memories. They’re what we have left, eh? They’re what we share to make ourselves and others feel a tiny bit better in moments of profound lose, like we’re feeling today.
My fondest Gordie Howe memory came just a few years ago – not at a hockey rink but along the banks of the AuSable River. We were in Grayling with friends, where we’d just watched the start of the 120-mile AuSable River Canoe Marathon. My wife, Jo Ann, and I were standing in line at the local Dairy Queen with our dog, a big, fluffy Great Pyrenees.
We were preoccupied with friends when I happened to look behind us. There, on his knees, was a man whose shock of white hair matched the dog’s. I looked over my shoulder and did a
double-take. Yep, there was Gordie was petting her with both hands and whispering softly into her ear the way a 7-year-old boy would.
Turns out watching the start of the Marathon was a Howe family tradition, too.
While Gordie posed for pictures with other race fans and signed a few autographs with that perfect penmanship Colleen taught him, Murray was in line getting the ice cream. We talked for several minutes, shook hands and went our separate ways.
On the way home that evening, I couldn’t help but think I’d just crossed paths with the greatest athlete Detroit has ever known. My dog, on the other hand, only knew she had just encountered an extraordinarily kind man. In fact, Gordie Howe was both.
MORE TRIBUTES AND MEMORIES OF MR. HOCKEY