A turn of events many decades ago, after an exhibition game in Saskatoon, told Johnny Bower exactly who Gordie Howe was.
Bower, the Toronto Maple Leafs' stalwart goaltender, was leaving the rink, and Howe, star right winger of the Detroit Red Wings, caught up to him. The two were off-season buddies, so Howe wanted to walk and talk with Bower en route to their next destination. Bower, now 91, doesn't necessarily remember where they were going, but he remembers clear as day what happened next.
"We got about a block away, and all of a sudden, he turns around and goes back," Bower said. "He said, 'John, don't go too far. I'll be right back. Stay right here.' "
It turned out Howe had a oath to keep. He'd promised an autograph to a man in a wheelchair attending the game. Howe couldn't sign anything immediately afterward, as he would've violated NHL rules, so he insisted he'd find the man later and sign something away from the watchdogs' eyes. Howe had forgotten about it during his walk and wasn't about to break his word. He hustled back to the rink and gave the fan a signature.
"I said, 'I can't believe it,' " Bower said. That's a star right there. He was well liked by everybody."
Bower told THN this story Friday, hours after Howe's death at 88 was confirmed. Bower was eager and happy to talk about Mr. Hockey, who was just as much a good friend as he was a fearsome opponent. They shared the bond of being born and bred in Saskatchewan and spent many a summer together between seasons. Their careers directly overlapped for parts of 15 years, and they met in the playoffs four times, but they put hockey aside whenever they retired to Wakesiu Lake, a resort town in Prince Albert National Park, north of Bower's native Prince Albert, Sask. At least, that's what Howe wanted to do.
"I'd go fishing with him and start to talk about the Detroit Red Wings," Bower said, "and he'd say, 'John, I don't want to talk to you about hockey, OK? I'm here to do the fishing. I'm concentrating on fishing."
It was their favorite activity and, unsurprisingly, fiery Howe took it seriously and did it very well. Bower said the same wrists that made Howe such a great shooter made him a great fisherman, armed with powerful line-casting ability.
"He was strict," Bower said with a laugh. "He would watch me and help me a little bit, 'You're not doing this, you're not doing that,' but he helped me a great deal. I tried it, and I'd get snagged up a little bit, and he'd get a little mad. You could tell his lips were ready to say something, but he never did. He kept that to himself. He kept helping me out."
And Howe helped Bower on the ice, too. Everyone knows about Howe's deadly elbows, a.k.a. The Gordie Howe Specials, and Bower was well aware of them during his playing days. He wasn't as afraid as most goalies to leave the net, however, because Howe would warn him during a fly-by.
"He'd come up behind me and say, 'Oh, John, I'm right behind you,' coming for the puck, so I'd step out in a hurry," Bower said.
Not that Bower was immune to all Howe attacks. His ability to score just as deftly from the forehand or backhand gave Bower fits. He never knew which shot was coming. He ranks Howe's wrist shot up there with Maurice Richard's and would get the shakes every time Howe approached with the puck. High praise coming from one Hall of Famer to another. Howe cracks Bower's list of the best players he's ever faced. It's a short one, just two names long, the other being Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau.
Only four players in NHL history have suited up at 45 or older: Moe Roberts, Chris Chelios, Bower and Howe. The latter two great friends were connected by their longevity. And, talking to Bower, it stands out that Howe was built to last in every way. Physically, he was strong as a bull, with a washboard stomach rivalled only by the Leafs' Tim Horton, Bower said. But Bower is just as quick to point out everything Howe did after his career, which includes raising millions of dollars for charity with his wife, Colleen, who was the driving force behind the Howe Foundation, which raises money for those in need to help them play hockey.
Howe never stopped making an impact on the game, even in his later years. He fought to remain a meaningful contributor, and one of his best assets, "his mean streak" as Bower put it, likely lit the fire that helped Howe survive long after his diagnosis was grim following his major stroke in 2014.
“He’s a great fighter, Bower said. "He fought a long time. They figured he would die, maybe go away a year ago. But he didn’t give up. That’s the kind of player he was, too. He never gave up until the end.
"But it is sad for everybody and the family and anybody that knew Gordie Howe as well. He’ll meet his wife up in heaven now.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin