At this point, I’m not sure I could pick out one player from NHL history and identify him as my favorite, but I definitely know who my favorite player to hear stories about is.
That fact was re-affirmed while we at The Hockey News put together a special issue titled the Top 100 Players of All-Time by Position. It’s on newsstands now (and available online) and the profile on Gordie Howe includes more than one smile-inducing yarn about the man who is the extreme representation of that most fascinating of contradictory beings, the small-town Canadian hockey player.
The split personalities made for a man off the ice who was so humble and shy he, in his own words, “stalked” his future wife, Colleen, at a bowling alley before finally working up the courage to ask her out.
On the ice, as you may have heard, it was a bit of a different story and they tend to be similar to this one told by Howe to writer Bob Duff about a game between a team of World Hockey Association all-stars and a Russian select squad. Skating on Howe’s line was a fresh-faced young man named Wayne Gretzky:
“There was a Russian hacking away at Wayne all night and he was getting really frustrated,” Howe said. “I told him, ‘The next time you get the puck, bring it up right wing. When you hear heavy breathing, get out of the way.’ ”
Howe leveled the Russian with a devastating check. As the Russian trainer tended to his prone player, the WHA team changed lines. “We were sitting on the bench and I said, ‘Damn,’ ” Howe remembered. “Wayne asked,
‘What’s wrong, Gord?’
“I said, ‘He’s getting up.’ ”
There’s a personal twist to my favorite Howe tale. It occurred about a year after THN hired me, when Howe came to our office to speak with writer Ken Campbell for a cover story. Howe was coming up to his 80th birthday and his beloved wife was losing a battle with Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia. Still, Howe was in better spirits than he had been in years and, after flipping through old photos and basically swapping stories and memories with Ken for a couple hours, the rest of the staff was brought into a room for an opportunity to shake hands with a legend.
My profession usually calls for keeping hockey heroes at arm’s length, even if they are our own. This was one of those rare instances where it became instantly obvious the rules were going to be bent.
Seems there’s always a danger of that happening when Howe is around.
After taking some pictures, even hamming it up a bit by throwing some mock elbows at us, Howe was on his way and I was left thinking how lucky I was to have the job I do, while also contemplating something very similar to what Adam Graves had to say about a man who incorporated every element of hockey into his game like no other.
“There was only one Gordie Howe,” Graves said. “That’s why they call him ‘Mr. Hockey.’ ”
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