Memories of Gordie Howe, Hockey’s Paul Bunyan and a Hero in the Motor City

The jersey retirement banner for Gordie Howe #9 of the Detroit Red Wings (1946-1971) hangs in the rafters during a game against the Minnesota Wild on March 11, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.

The jersey retirement banner for Gordie Howe #9 of the Detroit Red Wings (1946-1971) hangs in the rafters during a game against the Minnesota Wild on March 11, 2010 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

On a chilly Halloween night in 2014, the atmosphere warmed in Joe Louis Arena during an early timeout in the Red Wings’ game against the Los Angeles Kings.

Because Gordie Howe had suffered a serious stroke a few days before at age 86, the scoreboard and local telecast showed highlights of Mr. Howe’s extraordinary career. The clips included clear, black-and-white film from the late 1940s mixed with fuzzy, washed-out, color videotape of the early 1980s.

Then came a live image of fans standing inside the packed arena and waving little, printed, red-and-white signs that said “Get Well, Gordie” with the winged-wheel of the team logo in place of the letter “o.”

“Gordie!  Gordie! Gordie!” they chanted for a Red Wings’ icon from 1946 through 1971 who finished his career with Hartford at age 52 in 1980. Some of the cheering fans were born after he retired.

The public address announcer said Howe was watching this live from his daughter’s home in Texas.  But how could that be?  How much could Howe possibly comprehend after a severe stroke upon his other ailments?

Later that night, there appeared on YouTube a video of Mr. Howe, surrounded by his descendants, watching that same telecast, live, on a small, hand-held tablet screen. The video was made by his son, Dr. Murray Howe.

Mr. Howe was the man Wayne Gretzky calls the best hockey player who ever lived, and who are we to argue with The Great One?

Amid off-camera voices saying things like “They’re cheering for you, Dad!” Mr. Howe fixed his eyes uncertainly on the rectangle.  Dementia had slowed his mind even before the stroke.  After staring at the screen for long moments, Mr. Howe seemed to comprehend the scene and its meaning in a sudden flash.

He bowed his head and began to weep – big, heaving sobs — as his kids rushed to comfort him, like teammates clustering around the guy who’d just scored the big goal. To see it was to feel your heart break while filling with warmth and joy at the same time.

Mr. Howe died Friday at age 88.  He was one of a triumvirate of Detroit athletes – the others are baseball’s Ty Cobb and boxing’s Joe Louis – who were big, powerful stars who unquestionably dominated their sports for much of the 20th. Century when Detroit was a big, powerful city.

Coincidentally, on the day of Muhammad Ali’s funeral, hockey fans are feeling much of that same mixture of joy and sorrow.

Mr. Howe was the man Wayne Gretzky calls the best hockey player who ever lived, and who are we to argue with The Great One?

As with most hockey people, Mr. Gretzky learned quickly of Mr. Howe’s playfulness.  At age 9, when Mr. Gretzky was a Michael Jackson-like prodigy, he and Mr. Howe posed for a picture together at a banquet with a hockey stick as a prop.

Just before the camera clicked, Mr. Howe flipped the stick blade under young Gretzky’s chin, a feint of a foul, drawing a wide smile from the boy and producing a famous photograph.

Years later, after Mr. Howe attended Mr. Gretzky’s wedding to the actress Janet Jones, a reporter asked what Mr. Howe thought of the bride,  “Aw, she’s OK if you like ‘em young and pretty,” Mr. Howe said.

He had standing gags.  If a young radio reporter asked Howe to reveal his biggest thrill in hockey, Mr. Howe would put on a serious expression, nod his head and with a sincere tone of voice recount, in a few words, a ribald tale.

When the poor rookie journalist would gasp and gape in shock, Mr. Howe would smile and tell the kid “OK, why don’t you rewind that tape and we’ll start over.”

If you were in his presence and drinking a glass of water, Mr. Howe would walk up to you unexpectedly, point at the glass and remind you that “Fish (make love) in that.”

After retiring, Mr. Howe worked for the Whalers as a good will ambassador.  He enjoyed hanging around the press box before games, chatting with all who approached.  You almost forgot how Mr. Howe was almost as famous for his fast fists — and faster elbows — as for his goals.

He had unusual peripheral vision, on ice and in press boxes.  Imagine a haggard reporter, dashing to the Whalers’ rink after landing an hour before the game in a snowstorm.  As you walk in, after a harrowing cab ride, you see Mr. Howe’s famous sloped shoulders from behind, but you aren’t aware Mr. Howe had noticed you.

But when you tried to walk behind Mr. Howe as he conversed with someone else, he’d whip a right elbow within a centimeter of your chin, turn around and blink his eyes – face all innocent – and say  “Oh, I’m sorry, sir! Did I almost hit you with my elbow?”

  You almost forgot how Mr. Howe was almost as famous for his fast fists — and faster elbows — as for his goals.

Then he’d give you this big, goofy grin as wide as the Saskatchewan prairie where he grew up between the wars the son of an American father and a German-born woman who struggled to farm a homestead outside Saskatoon before moving to the big city for construction work.

This was during the Great Depression.  His first skates were from a bag of hand-me-downs.

“I was about five and we were on relief at the time,” Mr. Howe told W.C. Heinz of “The Saturday Evening Post in 1959.   As young man, Mr. Howe lifted cement bags.  By age 16, he moved to Galt, Ontario, working out with a junior team and working a full shift as a spot welder in a war munitions plant.

He was an unusually cut physical specimen, large for his era at 6 feet and 205 pounds. His teammates called him “the big guy.”

He had lean, rippling muscles in his torso and arms and ambidextrous hands that he used to score 801 goals in the National Hockey League and 174 in the World Hockey Association. He was the N.H.L.’s most valuable player six times and won the scoring title six times.  His Detroit teams the Stanley Cup four times.

Yes, they did call him “Mr. Hockey” but that bit about a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick — a goal, an assist and a fight – is a bunch of sportscaster hooey somebody invented long after Howe retired. Nobody ever used that term when Mr. Howe played.  He himself had a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” only once in his career.

But the story about the eggs is true.

They used to fall from the balcony of Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on Grand River during the third period of close games.

“Splat!  Splat!”

They didn’t land like the playoff octopuses, a Detroit tradition. Those creatures are easily removed by shovel or the bare hands of brave men.  For the eggs, a couple guys with scrapers would come out and clean in up in due time.

You always wondered:  Why did this always happen only in Detroit?  Why did it always happen late in games? Why didn’t they ever catch the egg man?

Eventually, you figured out that Mr. Howe played as much as 30 minutes a game.  With no TV timeouts in that era, something had to delay the game to give Mr. Howe a rest for a double shift. The delays arrived, sometimes sunny-side-up but most often scrambled.

About the blinking.  Some said it was from the brain injury he suffered in the 1950 playoffs when he ran into the boards while trying to hit Toronto’s Ted (Teeder) Kennedy at Olympia.  In those days, the players wore no helmets and the boards had no glass, only chicken wire above wood.  His head hit the wood and he was worse than just unconscious.

There was fear that he would die and he was rushed to a local hospital with a fractured skull, a broken cheek bone and a laceration of an eye.  (He’d lost three teeth in his first game).  The famous photograph is one of the most grotesque in sports history: A young man, obviously unconscious, covered in blood.

But an operation drained fluid pressure on the brain and Mr. Howe recovered enough in three weeks to celebrate (in street clothes) the Stanley Cup. This is where Mr. Howe’s immense legend began to grow.

It’s not as if he’d risen from the dead, but he’d gotten closer to it than most ever will. His mystique was like that of Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

To kids growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Howe was a combination Cool Uncle, Prince of the City and guy next door. Everybody knew somebody who knew him. Competitive to the point of viciousness, Mr. Howe was an amiable and approachable superstar, even for his era.

After games at Olympia in the corridor by the dressing rooms, Mr. Howe would be the last guy signing autographs.  And what a signature!  Despite modest schooling, Howe practiced his autograph as a boy.  It was a big, flourishing work of art with a giant “G” and a huge “H” that seemed to flow like a figure skating patterns and ripple like flags.

Look it up on the internet.  The other letters are small and precise, adding a sense of discipline beneath the wave of his initials.  It was fitting on that Halloween night in Joe Louis that fans in the corridor signed get-well wishes and autographs to Howe on a big card the size of a wall.  It filled fast.  They sent him their autographs.

In Hartford one night, Mr. Howe told me the worst thing about the new arenas was that players didn’t get to meet fans anymore because they park in private garages and drive by autograph hounds without stopping.

The success of Mr. Howe’s Detroit teams in the 1950s reflected the Motor City’s influence in those years of muscle cars and land yachts. Mr. Howe’s trio of forwards (including Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel and, later, Alex Delvecchio) was always known as the “Production Line.”

Despite Mr. Howe’s stardom, lesser players made more money.  Mr. Howe was notoriously underpaid by the Wings and, by extension, held down salaries throughout the roster and the league.

Mr. Howe once told me he and Lindsay went to Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in the late 1950s to ask about forming a union.

“Pro athletes don’t need a union,” Mr. Hoffa said, according to Mr. Howe.

Of course, there was much more to it. Mr. Lindsay – Mr. Howe’s left wing and an usher at his wedding – tried to form a union but Mr. Howe, intimidated by ownership and management, didn’t support him and Mr. Lindsay was banished to Chicago in a punishment trade.  It delayed hockey’s union movement a full decade.

There were other bumps in their friendship. Many years later, Mr. Howe’s wife, Colleen Howe, had taken over business affairs as Howe’s agent.  She tried to bring Gordie and his sons, Mark and Marty, back to Detroit in 1977 after they’d played four years together with Houston of the World Hockey Association in Gordie’s comeback era.

But Mr. Lindsay was the general manager of the Wings then and he refused to give up the necessary draft picks.  So Colleen Howe sold the family package instead to the W.H.A.’s New England (later, Hartford) Whalers and Mark Howe went on to the Hall of Fame, playing most of his career in Philadelphia.

Ms. Howe was livid about Mr. Lindsay. I remember our phone conversation. She talked bitterly for hours. Mark Howe had grown up at Olympia as the best player on the Junior Wings.

Her husband was more one to forgive and forget.  He maintained a friendship with Mr. Lindsay. Their last major public appearance together was at Comerica Park in an outdoor Old-Timers’ game two years ago when they were introduced (in street clothes) at center ice.

Colleen Howe steered her husband in many promotional ventures with mixed success. In her later years, she suffered from dementia and Gordie cared for the woman he’d met as a teenager at a bowling alley.

When she died in 2009, Mr. Howe told the Associated Press; “You can think you’re a big, strong guy, but, if something like that happens, it makes you weak as a kitten.”

When she died in 2009, Mr. Howe told the Associated Press; “You can think you’re a big, strong guy, but, if something like that happens, it makes you weak as a kitten.”

No doubt there are many hockey fans feeling the same way today. But it’s wrong to end a memory riff about Howe on a sad note because Mr. Howe was rarely a sad guy.

With the advocacy of his doctor son, Mr. Howe made a miraculous recovery from his stroke in 2014 by going to Mexico for experimental treatment with stem cells. A few months later, he and his son, Mark, traveled to Saskatoon for a dinner in Gordie’s honor.

They journeyed from his daughter’s home in Texas to Saskatchewan but there were mechanical problems with the plane. One problem led to another and they had to change planes and wait.

The expected four-hour journey took 15 hours. On “Hockey Night in Canada,” they did an interview with Mark, who explained the ordeal to an announcer. Gordie sat slightly behind them, out of their vision.

As Mark spoke, Gordie closed his eyes as if fatigued. He began to slump toward his right, as if collapsing, something certain to worry viewers. Suddenly, he sat up straight and smiled at the camera. He couldn’t speak but he was still good at sight gags.

Another favorite Howe moment came during the exhibition schedule of 1978.

Because the N.H.L. and W.H.A. were about to merge, their teams were allowed to meet in the preseason and the Howe men and the Whalers packed Detroit’s Olympia, where Howe hadn’t played since 1971.

“Gordie!” the fans chanted. “Gordie! Gordie!”

After the game, the fans wanted a curtain call, the kind Mark (The Bird) Fidrych got over at Tiger Stadium in that era.  But Mr. Howe never came out.

In the dressing room, blinking his eyes, with a sincere expression, said he really wanted to but, gosh, the corridor was too crowded and he was really sorry, he could hear them outside, chanting his name.

This sounded plausible for about 11 seconds until I realized the distance from the dressing room door to the ice was about 20 yards and Gordie Howe, with sharp blades on his feet and a big stick in his hand, would have no problem getting Detroit hockey fans to step aside and give him a little room if he so desired it.

What I still suspect is that Mr. Howe was simply obeying the First Commandment of Show Business: Leave them yelling for more.  And they got it, in his last NHL appearance in Detroit, when he was worshipped in the brand-new Joe Louis Arena in the 1980 All-Star game. “Gordie!” they chanted. “Gordie! Gordie!”

Now, after a few days of mourning, the chanting and the cheering will stop. Gordie’s gone for good, but his name and fame will endure.

They are building a new bridge over the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It will be called the “Gordie Howe Bridge.” No doubt it will be big and strong and last a long time.

Memories of Gordie Howe, Hockey’s Paul Bunyan and a Hero in the Motor City