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November 23, 2012
With skill, passion and grit, Gordie Howe left a lasting mark (often literally) on those he played with and against. His career is a celebration of hockey itself
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November 23, 2012

A Man Among Men Who Was One Of The Boys

With skill, passion and grit, Gordie Howe left a lasting mark (often literally) on those he played with and against. His career is a celebration of hockey itself

THE SWEETEST CINEMATIC HOMAGE IN HOOKY, IF NOT HOCKEY, HISTORY occurs in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when Cameron, Ferris's wingman, meanders through Chicago—a swell restaurant, Wrigley Field, a parade—wearing a Red Wings jersey with number 9 and HOWE on the back. Now sporting a Red Wings sweater in the Windy City generally is an invitation to a fat lip, but Cameron's sartorial statement goes unremarked in director John Hughes's film because admiration of Gordie Howe transcends even Original Six lines.

Disclosure: I liked Howe from the moment I met him.

This occurred in late 1979 or maybe early 1980 when I was doing a story on him for the Montreal Gazette during his NHL comeback, at age 51. I was supposed to fly with the team—commercial, of course—but was bumped from an oversold flight carrying Howe and the Hartford Whalers to Philadelphia. Noting that there was another flight to Philly in a few hours, Howe told the team he would catch the next one and deplaned in order to sit in the airport and chat. Howe was going out of his way by not going anywhere at all. A reporter will not forget that kindness from the stoop-shouldered man with the easy smile, viselike handshake and old-fashioned values forged in Depression-era Saskatchewan.

I was honored that Howe put up with me because he suffered neither fools nor slights. He would, of course, pick his spots to act on his displeasure. (Often the tip of the chin. That was a spot.) During the 1957--58 NHL season Bob Baun, a rugged Toronto defenseman, nailed Howe, who had been cutting into the middle to unleash a shot, with a seismic check. Mistake. Ten seasons later—10!—Baun was on the ice again for the expansion Oakland Seals when Howe again cut to the middle. Fool Gordie once, shame on you. Fool Gordie twice, a Zamboni might be scraping up your teeth. This time Howe released his shot on net and held his follow-through long enough for his stick blade to carve g.h. on Baun's throat. As a supine Baun gasped for breath after perhaps the first recorded Sher-wood tracheotomy, the Red Wings' star, straddling him, gazed down and growled, "Now we're even, you s.o.b."

Other times Howe actually would be moved to apologize. Like during that Metamucil Across North America Tour in 1979--80 when I met him, the season he made a grandfatherly return to the NHL—and scored 15 goals. Howe raked his stick across the chin of Bob Miller after the Boston center had the effrontery to steal the puck from the right winger, who by then was poetry in slow motion. Miller left the ice late in the second period, leaking blood. When Bruins veterans inquired about the fresh zipper during the intermission, a credulous Miller replied, "Gordie got me ... but he said he was sorry."

The room erupted in laughter.

"Then," the late Brad McCrimmon, a Bruins defenseman at the time, recalled, "it was show-and-tell time."

Somebody pointed to his missing teeth ... Gordie.

Another player displayed a scar ... Gordie.

A bent nose ... Gordie.

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