Friday, June 10, 2016

Mr. Hockey

"All hockey players are bilingual. They know English and profanity." Gordie Howe.

Noting the passing of hockey great Gordie Howe.

No one who saw young Gordie Howe play, a big kid from Saskatoon trying out for the Detroit Red Wings, had the slightest doubt he would stick in the NHL. That he would lead the league in scoring multiple times, be serially most valuable player and be known as one of the greatest hockey players of all time was still to be determined. But, the young man definitely had game.

Gordie made his Red Wing debut in 1946 at the modest age of eighteen. His contract - a few thousand a year - had a unique signing bonus, one the team nearly forgot. So the story goes, the quiet six footer stood uncomfortably outside of the GM's office, shifting to and fro. He had come to claim his bonus...a Red Wings team jacket.

Hockey in this era was a different sport than the one currently played. Helmets were rarely worn (often only in the aftermath of a head injury, discarded as soon as possible), and goaltenders braved blistering shots, rock-hard pucks whizzing past their ears, wearing nothing on their faces but a crooked, scarred frown. The National Hockey League had six teams, with only four...three and the Montreal Canadians...making the playoffs. Trains - including overnights in Pullman cars - were the preferred method of travel.

Hockey was also a meaner sport. Judicious use of a stick was an accepted method of retribution. So was a deft elbow.  Howe stories abound where he felt slighted by someone (often for the inexcusable act of taking the puck from him), and exacted immediate, often painful revenge. One referee (in those days, there was only one on the ice) remembers a building-shaking crash behind him. Turning, he saw a player, who had moments before bodied Howe, crumpled in an inert heap. Howe was skating away, angelic look on his face.

Another time, a player stole the puck from Howe - "picked his pocket" - and started back up ice. The opponent recalled a "whoosh, whoosh" sound behind him, similar to an approaching freight train. The blade of a stick appeared under his arm, tip menacing the end of his nose. "Check out, Junior," Mr. Hockey growled. The kid did what he was told.

Howe  played into the 1970's, long enough for his sons to join him. By then gray haired and a half step slower, he was still a formidable force. I saw him play in a dreary, damp rink in Boston, in the waning years of his career. He played for Houston, a member of the fledgling World Hockey Association, appearing against the New England Whalers. He was not much of a factor in the game, but it was obvious players did not trifle with him.

He passed away at 88, the victim of dementia and advanced age. There have been a few great hockey players over the years. Several had a profound influence on the sport itself. A handful can be called truly gifted. Gordie Howe didn't change the way the game was played. All he did was change every game in which he appeared, the moment he stepped on the ice.

Mr. Hockey. Number Nine in your program.

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