Mr. Hockey

One March day in 1928, Katherine Howe was chopping wood outside the family’s dirt-floor home in Floral, Saskatchewan, when she felt labor pains. Her sixth child. So, she went into the home and boiled some water. Then, she climbed into bed, delivered her own child, cut the umbilical cord while the baby slept and waited for her husband, Albert, to come home after a rough day of farming and hunting.

That was the day Gordon Howe was born.

Everything about Gordie Howe’s extraordinary life sounds a bit like that — folk heroish, right out of the tall-tale pages of Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Could a man like Gordie Howe really have existed? He grew up on the Canadian prairie, in the shadow of the Quaker Oats mill in Saskatoon, and he often would eat oatmeal three times a day because the family could not afford anything more. He battled his sister Edna for the used pair of skates that a desperate neighbor sold them — she got one, he got the other, and he either paid Edna a dime for her skate or stole it when she wasn’t looking (the record isn’t clear).

He was painfully shy, struggled in school (he repeated the third grade and later determined that he probably suffered from dyslexia), and he only seemed to feel at ease on the ice. As a child he would sometimes play for five different teams, rushing from one rink to the next with barely enough time to switch sweaters. He made himself a powerful skater by playing hockey on every kind of surface imaginable. He taught himself touch and feel by puck-handling tennis balls over dirt and gravel roads. He was unnaturally strong; he learned that one day when, faced against an eighth-grade bully, he ended the fight with one punch. He was in the third grade at the time.

And he learned toughness from his father. Gordie Howe was not exactly close to his father. Ab Howe worked more or less non-stop and did not have time to even see his son play a game until Gordie was in the NHL. Still, there were lessons learned just watching that rugged man go about his life. Gordie never would forget the time Ab Howe encountered a fool who kept bumping him every time as Ab tried to shoot pool.

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“Don’t do that again,” Ab told the guy, who had no idea that he was in the midst of a folk-hero story. When Ab tried to take his next shot, the guy bumped him again. Ab Howe turned and, with an open hand, smashed the guy’s face and knocked him over a pool table.

“You better get out of here Ab, I think you killed him,” the owner said.

“Don’t take dirt from anyone,” Albert Howe told his son, Gordie.

Every part of Gordie Howe’s story is so stark, so sharply focused, so wonderfully framed that Mr. Hockey seemed to blur the lines between myth and reality. Could a man like Gordie Howe really have existed? One of my favorite Howe stories is about how when he was 13 he used to collect BeeHive Corn Syrup labels. In those days, you could send those labels back to the company for a photograph of your favorite hockey player. Howe collected almost 200 photos, but he noticed that when they didn’t have the player you requested they would always send a photo of Toronto goaltender Turk Broda. Howe got a lot of Turk Broda photos.

In five years, Howe was in the NHL himself.

“And when I did arrive in the NHL,” Howe wrote in his book, “would you believe who I scored my first goal against? Turk Broda.”

The numbers and achievements are otherworldly. He finished top-five in the NHL in scoring for TWENTY straight years. When Howe retired, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in, well, basically, all the good stuff they counted then: Goals, assists, points, games played. Later, smart people came up with new things to count, like adjusted goals created. Howe is still second in that category, only behind Wayne Gretzky.

He scored his first NHL goal when he was 18 years old, before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, before Israel was founded, before Bobby Orr was even born. He scored his last goal when he was 52, in 1980, after the U.S. Olympic hockey team stunned the Soviets, just as Israel and Egypt were making a shaky peace, after Bobby Orr had retired. Gordie Howe used to have a stick that was barely curved because he wanted to be lethal from both the forehand and backhand side. No one matched Gordie Howe’s backhand. That last goal, rightfully, was on a backhand.

Howe won six Hart Memorial Trophies as NHL’s most valuable player, and he also won one Gordie Howe Trophy as MVP of the World Hockey Association. Well, it wouldn’t officially be called the Gordie Howe Trophy until just after he won it but still, it’s a bit like Cy Young winning the Cy Young Award.

And, one more number: When Howe retired, he was second all-time in penalty minutes, behind only Terrible Ted Lindsay. This was what separated him. He was the best hockey player but he was also the toughest. To this day, a Gordie Howe Hat Trick includes a goal, an assist and a fight. In a sport with breathtaking skill players and the enforcers who protected them, Howe was both.

In 1959, he famously tangled with Lou Fontinato, a Rangers defenseman who had earned minor fame for becoming the first player to draw 200 penalty minutes in a season. Fontinato was such a well-known bruiser that Look Magazine ran a pictorial of him flexing his muscles and looking mean. Every team had someone they sent out to irritate Howe, and Fontinato was the Rangers’ guy. Sometimes, it worked. Fontinato once yelled at Howe, “Do you want to go?” to which Howe replied something like, “Hell yeah.” He promptly threw his stick to the ground.

“I forgot a valuable piece of Ted Lindsay’s hockey wisdom,” Howe would say every time he repeated the story. “You always wait for the other guy to drop his stick first.”

Why? Well, Howe dropped his stick but Fontinato did not. Instead he used it to clock Howe in the head, opening a gash that required six stitches to close. The payback came on that day in ’59, when Fontinato tried to jump Howe. Mr. Hockey slipped the first punch, immobilized Fontinato’s right arm and whaled away. He broke Fontinato’s nose and dislocated his jaw. “I can’t say I felt sorry for him,” Howe would write in his autobiography. “That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job, and I was doing mine.”

That was just the most famous in a long string of famous Gordie Howe fights — but the truth is that Howe’s toughness prevented more fights than it spurred. He usually ended any and all thoughts of fighting with one swift action, a sort of “watch yourself” check. Bobby Orr would always remember going a bit too high on Howe with a stick once and finding himself the recipient of one sharp elbow that knocked him to the ice. “I’m a very religious player,” Howe told Orr later. “I think it’s much better to give than to receive.”

Many people think Bobby Orr is the greatest hockey player ever.

Bobby Orr thinks Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever.

As menacing as Howe was on the ice, though, he never stopped being the shy and gentle prairie kid off of it. Howe died on Friday. He was 88, and there’s a story that comes to mind, one the Canadian poet Richard Harrison tells. Harrison wrote a poem about Howe called “A Lifetime of Moving A Body Just So.” And, just before he met Howe for the occasion, Harrison had haunting dreams that Howe didn’t like the poem, hated it in fact, and it sent chills through Harrison.

But then they met, and when Harrison read the poem, he saw Gordie Howe’s ears turn red from embarrassment. Mr. Hockey was overwhelmed by the words, deeply touched. He was the toughest man in hockey, yes. He was also the gentlest and kindest of souls. That’s a folk hero for you.

“He is exactly the way Canadians like to think of themselves,” the marvelous Canadian writer Roy MacGregor says. “He is strong, tenacious, a team player, determined, triumphant and yet never arrogant. It is debatable if Canada is really like that. But Gordie Howe definitely is.”

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