By Jim Hagarty
A boy needs an idol growing up.
Mine was Gordie Howe.
My best friend and I were dedicated Detroit Red Wings fans and could find, in Howe, no better hero. Even though we grew up on farms in Ontario, and should have cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs, my friend had a cousin who played for the Red Wings so we had no choice to cheer for the red and white and by extension, to despise the blue and white.
In the day and age of only six NHL teams, our chances of ever seeing Gordie Howe live and up close were slim to none. We never got to go to any games.
Though hockey always dominated our interests, as we grew up, other things came along. The Beatles, girls, cars, girls and girls. Also, girls.
Our hometown was a small place, five miles away, called Mitchell. Over the years, through connections, the town’s vibrant hockey system (which gave the world its first superstar, Howie Morenz), developed a relationship with the minor hockey system in Detroit. One year, Mitchell players travelled to the Motor City for a tournament. The next year, the Detroit kids came to our town.
In 1968, when my friend and I were 17, the local newspaper carried a story which said several Detroit teams would be coming to Mitchell that winter. Of special interest was the fact that Gordie Howe’s sons, Mark and Marty, would be playing on one of those teams. But the story made the point of saying that Gordie would not be able to see his sons play that day.
We debated going to the game, but ended up there anyway. The stands in the small arena were filled, so we stood by the boards near the entrance and watched with noses pressed against the glass. There were Mark and Marty, scooting around the ice. Pretty cool.
When we approached the boards, we had to split up. There was another fan standing between us. We didn’t pay much mind to that. Eventually, that person walked away, but the space between us remained and a man soon filled it.
It took a few minutes for it to dawn on us, but the crowd seemed to be looking our way and we didn’t know why. Finally, we looked up to discover that Gordie Howe was standing between us, watching his sons.
We whipped out our high school student cards. He signed them. We were too star struck to talk to him. Soon, someone escorted him to a heated viewing area above the ice. We followed him there, sat a couple of rows back.
We continued following him throughout the rest of his amazing career and for all the days after.
Yes, he was a hockey star, but more than that, he was the kind of man we wanted to be.
My friend kept up his intense passion for Howe longer than I did. He attended a game and saw him play. And over the years, both of us followed every newspaper story, every magazine photospread, every TV show that highlighted our hero.
A few years ago, Gordie Howe was in the Toronto area at a promotional event. The company had advertised, “Come out and meet Mr. Hockey.” My friend, now in his 60s, went to the event and was told where to go in the building to meet our hero. He found the room. Gordie was standing in there alone.
My friend and Gordie Howe chatted for 15 minutes. Howe was impressed at how much my friend knew about him.
He only knew the half of it.
I had practised writing his autograph for hours. I could have been passing bad cheques in his name this last 50 years. We had hockey cards and hockey coins that bore his image. We could recite all his hockey statistics by heart. We knew his biography better than our own.
And we knew the song by heart that was recorded and played on the radio: “Gordie Howe is the Greatest of them All.”
He was the greatest of them all.
A very good hockey player too.