Gordie Howe had completed his eighth season as a Detroit Red Wing before I was born. It would be another 10 years before he became a hero to me, an idol whose glow never dimmed until he died, coincidentally, on my birthday.
The first thing that struck me when I heard the news, after a twinge of sadness, was the timing of his death and that of Muhammad Ali. Howe and Ali were among the pantheon of sports giants in my early years. Hockey was the sport in our home, and with my dad and I the only males, we rarely missed Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights and, later, the Wednesday NHL games that were telecast, but starting well into the first period to accommodate the evening news.
For some inexplicable reason, dad had an interest in boxing, so I followed along, at first sharing his disgust for the upstart Cassius Clay cum Muhammad Ali. Braggarts in sport were not to be tolerated and neither were acts of non-conservatism. We took the boxer’s refusal to honour his draft card as a profound act of cowardice and disrespect. Eventually I would come around to admire his skill and artistry, and agree with some of his politics. My father did not.
There was no need to make any shift in how I felt about Gordie Howe. We bled Maple Leaf blue blood, but never was a bad word spoken about Howe, the ultimate hockey player. Humble and remarkably articulate despite his lack of education, he was simply not an easy man to dislike, even when he led his team to victory over our beloved Leafs.
A little story of being a young hockey fan has always stayed with me. My dad and I occasionally took in Western Hockey League games in the Stampede Corral to watch the hometown Stampeders play. I was probably nine years old when I took my new autograph book to a game and rushed down to get the signature of my then-favourite Stampeder, Lou Jankowski. He had a short, marginally successful NHL career in the 1950s, but in the WHL in the early 1960s he was a dominant scorer. Along with a few other kids, I lined up to get his autograph as players came off the ice at the end of the game. Jankowski brushed passed me, ignoring my proffered book and pen. My face must have showed my disappointment, because the team’s captain, Norm Johnson, stopped and asked if I would like him to sign my book. He became my favourite player.
A year later, shortly after I turned 10, Gordie Howe was the Calgary Stampede parade marshal and I was with my dad among the throngs lining the route. Autograph book in hand, I ran out to the convertible that Howe was sitting atop. He was signing autographs as fast as he could, and I was one of the lucky kids who came away with the treasured, and very legible, signature.
That act of kindness wasn’t enough to turn me into a Red Wing fan, but it made Gordie a hero in my eyes. I followed his career with enthusiasm and thrilled when he returned to the game when the World Hockey Association was formed. It took me a year or two before I could finally admit that the young Bobby Orr might possibly be the better player.
Gordie Howe was no saint on the ice, as countless players who took one of those famed elbows to the chin would attest. But he was a brilliant ambassador for the game he loved. As I read through articles following his death last week, I found myself smiling at a story about a young fan being rebuffed in his request of an autograph by goalie Terry Sawchuck. Howe threatened to break his arms and legs if he didn’t sign the kid’s book, and the kid got the signature he was looking for. That kid would grow up and become Gordie’s closest friend.
I think that we have lost a lot in not really having sports heroes as kids. And I am talking about athletes who understood the good they can do with their talents. For Gordie Howe, it was about being gracious and thoughtful and genuinely appreciative of what the sport he loved gave him, even if his employers took advantage of his naivety, even beyond the early years. Ali risked his entire career to stand up against a war he believed to be wrong, and eventually his detractors came around to understand the meaning of courage to bump up against prevailing thought.
I have rarely had any desire to meet famous people, understanding that public and private personas can be entirely different. But there are none I would have liked to have had a beer with more than Gordie Howe.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.