Saturday, 11 June 2016


My obit of Gordie Howe, Canada's 'Mr. Hockey', is in the Daily Telegraph today, with a lovely photo; you can also link to it online here. Because it's considerably curtailed from what I originally wrote for them, back in 2014 when it looked as if Gordie was going to die, I am posting my original copy below; you can read that instead. I changed the line about Bobby Hull to 'next great winger' because he did play the left side.

When I saw Gordie had died I contacted The Daily Telegraph because I'd done his obit for their stock about 18 months ago. The Daily Telegraph had apparently done an edit of it back then, but got all twisted trying to explain ice hockey as if it were quantum physics. They asked me a number of questions and then asked me to do an edit of their rewrite, which was awkward as I haven't done anything for the Daily Telegraph for a year now. This was because they eventually spiked a couple of obituaries they had commissioned from me (the poet Mark Strand, which you can find here; and the football great Chuck Bednarik; I did a longer, more complete version of that for my column, here). In both cases, they went to the spike because they hadn't been used in a timely fashion; in both cases the Daily Telegraph decided to not deign to honour me with payment for the work they had commissioned. So I stopped working for them. But they had paid me for Gordie's obit for stock, and unlike them, I felt I should live up to my part of the bargain, and rather than refuse until they compensated me for what they owed me, I said I would I did the edit. Since no good gesture goes unpunished, they flipped much of the my rewrite back anyway.

Howe's refusal to quit life eighteen months ago was a mark of his indomitable strength, and it was sad that he passed away only to be overshadowed by Muhammad Ali's funeral. I was in the BBC World Service studios doing commentary on Ali's memorial last night, for four and a half hours, and during that time I mentioned Howe, and how although he represented the Canadian ideal: hockey's mix of graft, hard work, and toughness,along with some grace, innate modesty, a sense of doing the right thing and exceptionally sharp elbows. He was arguably the greatest in his sport, certainly during the pre-Gretzky era, but his impact was not worldwide, transcendent, the way Ali's was. Of course neither is hockey, and no team sport exposes a man's inner self the way boxing does. This is not to take anything away from Gordie Howe. Look at Keith Olberman's personal reflection of Howe here. It tells you a lot about Howe the man; it's heartfelt, and I understand why it is.

Because, as I said in the obituary, after he finally retired from hockey Howe worked for a while for Howard Baldwin's film company. So did my old friend Steve Berman. But I didn't know that until one night in London sometime in the 80s, I think, when my phone rang and it was Berman calling from LA, in the days when trans Atlantic calls were still a Big Deal. 'Guess who was in my office today?' he said, with no preamble. 'Clint Eastwood?' I guessed. 'Better than that.' 'Sigourney Weaver?' Rae Dawn Chong?' 'Nastassja Kinski?' 'Nope better than that....Gordie Howe!" And Berms proceeded to tell me about Howe's visit, either coming to or from the golf course, with exactly the same tone of awe you hear in Keith Olberman.

A few notes. I actually coined 'The Howes That Gordie Built' myself, when I wrote an article for one of the Advocate papers about the family's coming to Hartford, but the Daily Telegraph attributed it to 'the press'. Who knows, someone in Houston might have done it years before me. I would have liked to mention that just as Gordie suffered a near-fatal injury playing hockey, so too did his son Mark, the best of the Howe sons on ice. Howe's near-miss resulted in the NHL's adoption of the quick release goals that get dislodged so often in modern games. I would have liked to write a little about Howe's appearance honouring Jean Beliveau: in the piece I mention Maurice Richard and Howe being Canadian 'fire and ice', but Howe and Beliveau were in many ways two of a kind. The NHL certainly thought so: when they retired after the 1971 season, the league waived the normal waiting period, and they were inducted together into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1972.

There was another parallel to be drawn to English sport with Howe, which thinking of Richard brought to mind. The French Canadian player in those days was supposed to be more full of finesse, more fiery, less steady and predictable, maybe not as good at the graft of hockey. It reminded me of the way English commentators would describe Gallic flair and temperament in rugby and even football commentary, which also reminded me that, in English football where flashy 'skill' (pronounced 'skeh-ull') was regarded with great suspicion, and things like 'work-rate' and 'bottle' (pronounced 'baht-oohl') were what won matches. I'm reminded of Conn Smythe's famous dictum in hockey: 'if you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice.'

I also went and looked up the Gordie Howe hat-trick (a goal, assist, and fight in the same game). Gordie himself registered exactly two of those in his career, according to official stats (Brendan Shanahan is the leader with 17, though Rick Tocchet had 18 if you count playoff games). But I suspect Howe did a lot of mixing up that was never actually whistled a penalty, or maybe called as a roughing minor, not a fighting major. I recall a Bugsy Watson story about checking Howe in his rookie year, taking the puck from him and skating the other way thinking 'that wasn't so hard'. Until he realised Howe was skating right behind him, and the blade of Howe's stick was right under his nose. I write about Howe's wrists below (the Telegraph had a deucedly difficult time figuring out what a wrist shot was) but Watson knew all about them, and knew a broken nose was just a flick of the wrists away. He 'lost' the puck back to Gordie. 

Gordie is of course, as I said, in the Hockey Hall of Fame and also the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Order Of Canada by the Queen. And when the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario is opened in 2020, it will be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge. RIP...

The ice-hockey legend, Gordie Howe, who has died aged 88 was Canada's version of Stanley Matthews. That is assuming Matthews had been lucky enough to play with two of his sons, and dominant enough to be nicknamed 'Mr. Football'. Howe was 'Mr. Hockey'; arguably the greatest right-winger of all-time. Generations of Canadians idolised him; Wayne Gretzky, who grew up to break Howe's scoring records, treasured a picture taken when he was a 12 year old pee-wee star alongside the great man. Howe trumped all other greats with his longevity, playing in five decades; debuting in the National Hockey League aged 18 in 1946, and playing final match in 1980, aged 52, on a team with his sons.

More importantly, Howe epitomised the values Canadians see in their national game. A smooth but not flashy skater, Howe applied himself fearlessly to hockey's relentless physical grind. His graft was rewarded by goals scored by quick-snapping hockey's finest wrist shot, faster then many players' slapshots, but without the windup slapshots require. He was ambidextrous, and using a flat-bladed stick, was equally effective with either backhand.

Born on a farm in Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe grew up in Saskatoon where his father was a day labourer. When he was five, his mother gave him a pair of hand-me-down skates and hockey became his obsession. He played on ponds all winter and shot on dry land the rest of the year. His family was poor, and he suffered from malnutrition; when his growth spurts began doctors recommended chin-ups to counter a calcium deficiency. The exercise, coupled with what he called 'tossing concrete' on building sites with his father, gave Howe a distinctive build: narrow sloping shoulders leading to powerful forearms and steel-band wrists. In juniors he was so dominant he got a try-out with the New York Rangers at 15, but he signed at 16 with Detroit Red Wings, playing with their junior team in Galt before making his professional debut at 17 with their minor league affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska.

The following year, 1946, he arrived in Detroit, assigned jersey number 17. He fought so often fans created the 'Gordie Howe hat trick', meaning a goal, assist, and fight in the same game. Howe actually did this only twice in his career; but his reputation prevented most players from even challenging him. The next season, Howe switched to number 9, because the lower number guaranteed him a bottom berth on Pullman trains. Coincidentally 9 was also worn by Maurice 'Rocket' Richard of Montreal's Canadiens, already the league's best right wing. For a decade Richard and Howe were Canadian fire and ice; a rivalry begun in Howe's rookie season when he knocked out the French-Canadian star with a single punch.

Howe teamed with centre Sid Abel and left wing Ted Lindsay on what became known, in tribute to Detroit's car industry, as 'The Production Line'. In the 1949-50 season, they were the league's top three scorers, but in the Stanley Cup playoffs Howe's career was nearly ended when he fractured his skull crashing into the rink's dasher boards. Emergency surgery drained liquid to relieve the pressure on his brain; doctors warned he might be permanently impaired. But Howe recovered quickly enough to appear at the match in Detroit when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup title. They won three more in the next five seasons, with Howe winning four consecutive most valuable player trophies. He won six in all, led the league in scoring six times, and was named its best right wing 12 times.

Howe played his last season for Detroit in 1970-71, moving to the front office after a contract battle with owner Bruce Norris, who accused Gordie's wife Colleen of manipulating Howe's demands. Colleen had got Gordie more money in his last contract, but a wrist injury limited his effectiveness and he was  finally convinced to retire. Colleen was a force in her own right; she started a junior team in Detroit so her sons could get top-level training. In 1973, when the upstart World Hockey Association arrived to compete with the NHL, the Houston Aeros shocked hockey by signing Mark and Marty Howe straight out of juniors, and bringing Gordie out of retirement to join them.

The Howes That Gordie Built won the WHA title in each of their first two seasons. In 1974 all three Howes played on a WHA select team against the Soviet nationals. Bobby Hull, arguably hockey's next great winger, gave up the 9 jersey in a show of respect; he wore 9 because as a kid he'd idolised Howe.  Howe was the leading scorer in the contentious series which the Soviets won; before it began Soviet coach Victor Kulagin complained publicly that Howe's selection, aged 46, was an 'embarrassment' to the game. Early on, Howe set up a goal for son Mark, then retrieved the puck from the net and flipped it with his stick over the Soviet bench to Kulagin. Later in the series, when a Russian defenseman slashed open Mark's ear, Howe sent a puck into the corner for him to chase, then checked him so hard he fractured his arm.

Howe ended his career with the Hartford (Connecticut) Whalers, one of the WHA teams absorbed into the NHL when the leagues merged in 1979. His last goal came in the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs against Montreal. Fittingly, it was a backhanded wrist shot. He retired the league's all-time leading scorer, even without counting his years in the WHA.

In retirement he worked for Whalers' owner Howard Baldwin's film business, and as a popular spokesman. Colleen ran the family's business, trademarking 'Mr. Hockey', 'Mrs. Hockey' for herself, and even the name 'Gordie Howe'. In 1997, Howe took a shift with the minor-league Detroit Vipers, marking his sixth decade in professional hockey. Coleen Howe died in 2009. Howe began showing signs of dementia, and suffered a series of strokes. He spent his last years moving between his children's homes. 

Gordon 'Gordie' Howe born 31 March 1928 Floral, Sask.
Died 10 June 2016, Toledo, Ohio
Wife Coleen Joffa m. 1953 d. 2009
Survived by four children: sons Mark, Marty, Murray daughter Cathy

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