There was a wonderful, charming contradiction about Gordie Howe. He starred in the Original Six NHL, a league that was both guts and glory, and Mr. Hockey was every bit of all of that. Especially the guts. On the ice, his game face fixed before the puck dropped, he was mean, fierce, unrelenting.
Other players feared him. No doubt some fans did, too. As a player, he was a brutalist.
Off the ice, he was everyone’s favorite uncle. Built like a boxer, he was startlingly polite, humble, self-deprecating, and gracious. He smiled all the time.
Howe always had time for the media. He always had time for the little kid who held out the autograph book. Though he was king of a sport that could be downright nasty and often cruel, there was a serenity and gentle kindness about him that totally belied that impostor who wore the No. 9 sweater with smudges of blood — some of it his and some of it not — often on the sleeves and shoulders.
When I first met Howe, he was already in his early 50s, finishing up his third hockey life with the Whalers, who finally entered the NHL for the 1979-80 season. He had had his long run in Detroit, followed by four years with WHA Houston, playing alongside sons Mark and Marty.
In a Whaler locker room full of twentysomethings, he was the old man, older than most of the league’s coaches.
I walked into that room following a game with the Bruins, expecting he would growl when I asked a question. Why would he be any different than the player? Instead, he politely looked up and answered, at one point even inviting me to sit down next to him. So I did. We chatted for all of two minutes, maybe less — deadline awaited — and I can only remember what he said as I got up to leave.
“Thank you,’’ he said. He was that polite.
Going on 40 years later, that still resonates with me. The guy whose name was synonymous with the sport, the guy I presupposed would talk and act the way he played, instead was soft-spoken, considerate, and so polite as to thank some fresh-faced reporter from Boston for asking a couple of innocuous questions about the game. That moment seems even more remarkable today.
At that stage of his life, obviously, Howe was not the on-ice force or terror he had been during his legendary career with the Red Wings. In Hartford, he was an icon in residence, a box office name, having arrived there in the Whalers’ WHA days to give them credibility.
He played that one NHL season (1979-80) with the Whale, then retired. I trust it wasn’t our two-minute conversation that convinced him it was time to go.
Years earlier, at the start of the ’60s, Howe played in the first NHL game I ever attended. I was 10, and more than a half-century later, what I remember of that night is the spectacle of seeing a giant sheet of ice indoors (we only skated outside), the dazzling white brilliance of it under the Garden lights, and those blood-red Detroit sweaters with the Winged Wheel on the chest.
I cannot tell you that I remember Howe, although he was still the Red Wings’ top scorer at the time. I do remember my father telling me to watch for Howe and for Alex Delvecchio, another great Red Wing, but I was more interested in the Bruins — specifically John Bucyk and Tommy Williams.
Williams was both a great skater and an American, which was an NHL anomaly in those days. The league then was virtually a private all-Canadian league, for men like the Saskatchewan-born Howe (wherever Saskatchewan was). But Williams was one of us, and that mattered, at least to me. My father, a superb skater himself, was more taken by Williams’s speed and fluidity. He saw skating as an art, something I grew to understand and appreciate.
Otherwise, I remember only that the game ended in a tie. Hockey was OK, but I still much preferred baseball and the Red Sox. Even with Lou Clinton and Ike Delock.
In the years following Howe’s playing days, I often would see him at league functions, be it a draft, the playoffs, or an All-Star Game. He never changed. He had an ease of manner, yet a confidence. If asked an opinion, he had it, but he quickly would turn a question into a conversation, always speaking softly, politely.
I know that sounds basic, or simple, but it was not true of all his contemporaries, and it is all but absent in much of today’s sports world.
Gordie Howe was a singular talent, imbued with a grace and dignity, a manner and serenity all equally unique as his playing excellence.