DETROIT – Gordie Howe, who was such a great player in his day that he was christened Mr. Hockey, had some simple words of advice when he spoke with Sidney Crosby.
“I sat down and talked to him for a little while and I was impressed because he could stare a hole through you,” said Howe, who is 80 now. “There’s not a word goes by he doesn’t connect with.
“When he was leaving, I said, ‘Do me one favour and don’t change anything. Just be the kid you are, the player you are.’
“I met him and I’ve seen him play. Unless you put two guys on him, he’ll kill you in a game. Don’t worry about him. He’s going to be successful in the long run. Everywhere you look you see Crosby’s picture, and it’s earned.”
Howe told this story during an interview before he and a handful of his teammates from Detroit’s championship dynasty of the 1950s were guests of honour at an NHL banquet Sunday night.
A prolific scorer, and a tough-as-nails competitor as well, Howe was the league’s all-time leading scorer until Wayne Gretzky came along. He’s watching with some envy as the current edition of the Red Wings skates in the championship series.
“I’d love to be on the team with the money they’re paying now,” he said with a grin.
He wouldn’t love being sent to the penalty box under the enforcement of obstruction fouls that is much more strict today than in his era.
“Just touching a guy with a stick, that’s ridiculous,” he said of some of the penalties he sees called.
Diners stood to applaud as Howe, Red Kelly, who also is 80, Ted Lindsay, who is 82, Alex Delvecchio, practically a kid at age 76, and the others entered the dining hall.
“When you get to my age, you almost believe there’ll be a sickness somewhere along the line,” Howe said. “You just keep your fingers crossed and hope everybody can come next time.
“You go home and all of a sudden the doctor is knocking at your door. There is illness when you get old and (retired athletes) are subject to it like everybody else.”
Lindsay recalled travelling by train in the old six-team NHL.
“In those days, we never spoke to players on the other team,” he said. “If I was in Maple Leaf Gardens and I came out on College Street and there was a Toronto Maple Leafs player, you’d cross the street.
“In Montreal, we’d catch a train at 11:10 after a game and as long as there were no fights you’d catch the 11:10. We always hoped when the Canadiens were on that train that in Toronto on Sunday morning they’d put the diner between the two sleeping cars because I didn’t want to walk through the car and have to look at all those stupid Frenchmen, and likewise they didn’t want to look at us stupid Englishmen or whatever we were, you know.
“It always worked out that if the dining car was between, it worked out very well.”
Lindsay attempted unsuccessfully to form the first players’ association. Management disapproval eventually led to his trade to Chicago.
“I had a Red Wing tattooed on my backside and over my heart but I’d still do the same thing today as much as it changed my life,” he said.
A big difference between the NHL of today and way back when is that players are full-time athletes now, while in the old days players found other jobs during the off-season and didn’t train all summer.
“From the last game of the season, we never touched skates again until training camp in September,” Delvecchio said. “The team kept all the equipment and the skates.
“We had nothing unless we bought skates and we couldn’t afford them. We had a lot of great hockey players at the time, but in today’s game the athletes are much more conditioned. Maybe we had a few more finesse moves than they do now but they’re better athletes now.”
Howe said the Red Wings teams of the 1950s developed a togetherness that started with weekly Friday night parties initiated by teammate Sid Abel.
“That togetherness gave us a solid base,” Howe said.
Lindsay recalled great rivalries with the Canadiens and reinterated his respect for Montreal star Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
“Rocket Richard from the blue-line on in is still the greatest hockey player who has ever played in the world,” Lindsay said. “I don’t care if they play hockey for 100 years, nobody will ever be better than The Rocket.
“He was phenomenal. Tremendous strength in the upper body. When he came across that blue-line, if he had the puck on his stick, he was going to get a shot on goal.”
Kelly was the first winner of the Norris Trophy as best defenceman. He moved to centre and won more championships with Toronto. He donned a helmet in the mid-1960s – the only player in the NHL to wear one at the time.
“I’d had three concussions and the doc said, ‘Red, you’d better wear a helmet,”‘ Kelly said. “I didn’t like it. (Opponents) would whack me on the head because I was wearing a helmet. They didn’t have great helmets in those days and it pressed against my temples.”
Kelly was on a title team with the Leafs in 1964. He couldn’t celebrate the night of the Stanley Cup-clinching win because he also was a member of parliament at the time, and had to be in Ottawa at 2 p.m. the next day because the minority government of Lester Pearson needed all members in attendance for a crucial vote.
The late Harold Ballard, who would become owner of the Leafs and at that time was a Leafs executive, took the Stanley Cup and two bottles of champagne to Kelly’s home. Photos were taken, including one of Kelly’s newly-arrived son, Conn, sitting in the bowl atop the trophy.
“He had a smile on his face,” Kelly recalled. “He did the whole load in the Cup, the whole load.
“When my kids see players drinking champagne out of the Cup, now they all roar. They all have a great laugh.”