Gordie Howe was the first NHL player that made an impact on my life.
As a member of the Detroit Red Wings, he and his teammates would make an annual pilgrimage to Hamilton to play an exhibition game against the junior Red Wings. Back then junior hockey teams were sponsored by NHL teams so the notion of an NHL team playing an exhibition game in the middle of the season didn’t seem as weird as it would today.
Anyway, I recall going to the Hamilton Forum to see the NHL Red Wings play the OHA Red Wings and I, like everyone else in the barn, couldn’t take my eyes off No. 9. I was not yet 10 years old and Howe was established as the best player in the world. The opportunity to see him play up close and personal, even in a nothing game, was like seeing royalty.
Off the ice Howe was shy and humble, almost embarrassed to be in the spotlight. On the ice – his domain – Howe commanded attention. He was assured of his place in the game and it was obvious he knew all eyes were on him.
The world’s most famous right winger clearly loved being the centre of attention.
A right shot, Howe would often skate onto the ice holding his stick as though he shot left. Then, in games, he would at times switch hands and shoot left. Nobody else did that.
I decided very young that if Gordie Howe could do that, so could Mike Brophy. I was a left shot and I practised and practised and practised shooting right, eventually incorporating it into my road hockey game. Then, while playing high school hockey in Burlington, Ont., for the Lord Elgin Lancers, I saw an opportunity to do the Gordie Howe.
Skating into the offensive zone along the left boards I saw a defender approaching me and knew I wasn’t going to be able to get my shot off. Without thinking, often the case when I played hockey, I pulled the puck to the other side of my body, switched my hands on my stick and fired a slap shot shooting right. I scored.
Thanks Gordie Howe!
Years later, when I was a young reporter covering junior hockey for the Peterborough Examiner, I arrived at work one day to find I had been assigned to go to the Kinsmen Civic Centre to write a feature about Gordie Howe. By then, he was retired following an illustrious Hall of Fame career and was in town for the day as a guest instructor at a hockey school.
A short while later there were sat – just the two of us – in a dressing room at the Kinsman as I conducted my interview. It was the first time I actually got to speak to Howe, the legend, and he made me feel so comfortable. Over the years I have been in similar situations interviewing the best players in the world 1-on-1, the likes of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby and they all have the ability to make you feel comfortable in their presence – a sign of a good upbringing I believe.
It was at those times in my career when I realized how lucky I was to be doing this job. This is work?
I concluded my interview with Howe, thanked him and shook his hand and then started to leave the dressing room.
“Where the @#%&#@ are you going?” Howe bellowed, causing me to stop dead in my tracks.
Slowly I turned around to face Mr. Hockey and whispered, “Huh?”
“I’m not back on the ice for another hour,” Howe said. “Are you going to leave me in here by myself?”
I spent the next hour sitting with Howe who told me tale after tale about playing in the NHL, the WHA and the players he played with and against.
Thanks Gordie Howe!
Fast forward to 2010 when I was writing My First Goal, a book about 50 players scoring their first NHL goals. In my attempt to get a combination of the best players who ever played in the NHL along with some fascinating stories, I dedicated one chapter to the Howes, Gordie and his sons Marty and Mark.
By now Gordie was in his early 80s and his health was failing. I called him, told him what I was up to, and was disappointed when he said he could not remember scoring his first NHL goal. I suggested I would research it and get back to him and by the time I called back, about 90 minutes later, he was ready for me.
“It all came back to me,” Howe said.
I was delighted listening to Howe describe his first NHL goal, scored Oct. 16, 1946. In a 3-3 tie against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Howe took a shot that was stopped by Turk Broda. Howe took two cracks at the rebound, the second of which launched the puck into the net.
“The thing I remember most is the biggest cheer ever went up from the crowd,” Howe recalled.
Thanks Gordie Howe!