Gordie Howe will soon turn 86. The man called Mr. Hockey was born into a poor family near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1928. I idolized him when I was a boy and wanted desperately to play professional hockey one day. When, as an adult, I finally encountered Gordie back in 1994, I was pretty well tongue tied.
It was early March and minus 30 degrees in Regina, Saskatchewan. The prairies had endured a two-month deep freeze. I was awakened in my hotel room that Saturday morning by the growling sound of car motors turning over slowly, then dying, and the distinctive crunch that tires make on snow when it is that cold. Later, at the airport terminal, I learned that my flight to Edmonton was delayed so I half-heartedly turned to reading a newspaper.
When I looked across the small waiting room, I noticed a slope-shouldered man leaning against the wall. Big, but not bulky, he was perhaps 60 years old, with deep lines in his tanned face and thinning grey hair. He was dressed casually in a pair of beige cotton twill pants and he wore a dark blue sweatshirt over a white turtleneck. He squinted at the clock across the room and blinked several times in quick succession. There was something about him which was familiar.
The next time I looked up, he was being approached by a stout woman in a bright red coat. She offered him a writing pad and a pen, blushing robustly as she did so. He took the pen, signed deliberately and handed the autographed page back with a slight smile which brought an even brighter flush to her face.
The seat beside mine
Then he surveyed the room and spotting an empty seat he walked over and dropped into the seat beside mine. He began to shuffle with some papers, removed a stocky felt pen from his pocket and laboriously made some thick-nibbed notes.
I had been an amused spectator but now I had a dilemma. Should I tell him how as a child I loved winter, no matter how cold it became, because I could play hockey? Every day after school I went to the outdoor rink in our little Saskatchewan town until supper time, playing pickup with anybody who was willing. Immediately after supper I ran all the way back to the rink, before the other kids came for night skating. In that half hour I would spread shovels and scrapers the length of the ice, then I would take a puck and stick handle my way through the maze, up, around and back, again and again, believing completely all the while that one day I would play in the NHL.
Should I greet him? Say his name? Shake his hand? Ask for his autograph?
“I met your dad once,” I found myself saying, “when I was a kid.”
He looked at me with a steady hazel-eyed gaze, giving away nothing, as though I was a goalie and he was waiting for me to move first.
“It was out behind the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon. My father went in for a beer and left me sitting in the car with the motor running and the heater on. A little while later he came out with an old guy and he said, `I want you to meet Gordie Howe’s dad.'”
A slow smile lit Gordie’s face. “Yeah, that’d be like the old man,” he said in a soft drawl. And that was all. He went back to making felt pen notes, and I to my Saturday paper.
My dad’s loyalty
My father did not like to travel alone and often took me along for company. He could rarely pass a hotel without stopping, and when he did he gave me a dollar to buy soft drinks, chips and chocolate bars to eat while I waited for him. He had a habit of striking up conversations with strangers and so he began to talk to the older man seated near him in the Barry. It must have been loyalty to me that led my dad to invite Gordie’s dad, Abe Howe, out to the car to meet a skinny 12-year-old. My dad knew that for me hockey was life and that I would discuss no other future.
On our way home that evening, as the moon bathed the snow-covered fields in blue light, my father said that I should write a letter to Gordie Howe. I should tell him that I had met his father. I should tell him how much I loved hockey and wanted to play in the NHL.
Letter to Gordie
I wrote the letter and sent it to Gordie Howe, care of the Detroit Olympia. I hoped against hope for an answer but did not really expect one. Then one morning during the Christmas holidays when I was still in bed, my father came home from the post office. “For you,” he said and he flipped something into the air which landed on my blanket. It was a postcard, a black and white shot of Gordie Howe. He was on the ice, in his dark Red Wings uniform. He must have been doing stops and starts for the camera, because the ice chips sprayed up toward the lens from where he had come to a halt. He was leaning away from the camera, looking at me over his left shoulder. I turned the card over, and there across from my name and address he had written, “Best regards, Gordie Howe.”
I cherished that card but lost it somewhere along the way. I never did make the NHL although I did have a few pretty good years in the Potash League in central Saskatchewan. I had never met my childhood idol, until now.
Flying with Gordie
When the ticket agent called the flight to Edmonton, I was in for a surprise. To get there from Regina, I had to fly north to Saskatoon, then south to Calgary, only to fly north again to Edmonton. “Dammit,” I said to no one in particular. “I didn’t know I was going to Saskatoon.”
“I didn’t know I was comin’ to Regina,” Gordie said. “I sat on the runway in Chicago for an hour and I watched my plane leave for Calgary without me. Now I’m in Regina and my luggage isn’t.”
I preceded him onto the plane, a small Fokker jet, only to find that we were sitting in the same row, me on the aisle and he scrunched into the window seat. Once we were airborne, Gordie shut out the surrounding noise just as he had in the airport and tended to his own matters. He pulled out a hardcover book and opened it carefully, his place marked by a thick elastic band wrapped around the cover and the pages he had finished. It was a book about the rise and fall of hockey czar Allan Eagleson, whose career had been riddled with conflicts of interest and practices that cost hockey players millions of dollars.
Gordie read slowly, wearing a pair of gray-rimmed glasses, his thick index finger moving slowly across the page as he parsed each line. Above the sturdy hands his wrists looked the size of juice cans, and seeing them I remembered how he could shoot a hockey puck from either the right or left side with equal force and accuracy. I noticed, too, that both of his wrists had arthritic lumps on them, each covered by a scar, probably from surgery. It was his painful wrists, not the failure of his legs or lungs, that led to his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings after 25 seasons in the NHL. The wrists must have continued to hurt him during the additional eight seasons he played after coming out of retirement, before he finally quit for good at age 51.
When we put down in Calgary I stood, took Gordie’s coat from the luggage rack, and handed it to him. He looked up and smiled. “Nice to make your acquaintance,” I said, the words sounding formal and banal. In fact, I hadn’t even introduced myself.
“Sure,” he said. “And now if I can just get re-acquainted with my luggage.”