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A few quick Gordie Howe memories

Reports that Gordie Howe is fighting his way back from a serious health setback have been encouraging to hear.  Now 86, Howe is indeed one of those ‘larger-than-life’ figures of the game—arguably the most recognizable name in hockey for well over half a century.

Those who saw him play in person know how commanding a presence he was on the ice.  I had the opportunity to see him play on a few occasions at the old Detroit Olympia back in the early and mid 1960s, and he was simply a superb all-around player.

Besides the fact that my Dad didn’t like Gordie (Dad, as I’ve written here many times before, was a devoted Hab supporter who loved Rocket Richard, Howe’s rival) here’s what I remember about Howe:

He was one of the only opposing (meaning against the Leafs) players in my lifetime who made me genuinely nervous when he was on the ice.  Bobby Hull was in that category, along with Bobby Orr when he later joined the NHL, Jean Beliveau and in the 1970s, Gilbert Perreault with the Sabres. But Howe was at the top of the list, along with Orr.

To me, Howe was the kind of player that, if you were just watching casually, he wouldn’t necessarily stand out.  He wasn’t flashy like Hull or Toronto’s Frank Mahovlich, nor was he blazingly fast like Bobby Orr or Perreault.  But goodness, the little things he could do: he controlled the pace of play, could make and take a pass like few others.  He owned the corners because of his size, strength and willingness to be just a bit nasty. Of course he could fight, too, though I seldom saw him drop the gloves because he had already established his reputation in that regard much earlier in his career. He could barge in off his wing, hold a defenseman off with one hand and make a play with the other.

I remember two goals that Howe scored that stand out, (beyond his record setting goals, like numbers #544 and 545 against Charlie Hodge and Gump Worsley, which tied and broke Richard’s record-  the picture above right shows Howe with teammate Bill Gadsby after the record-breaking marker) : one was a goal he scored near the end of his NHL career in the late 1960s/early ‘70s. It was in Philadelphia against Bernie Parent, before Parent was later traded to the Leafs.  Howe was behind the Flyer net with the puck.  Standing still, right behind Parent, he quickly—and deftly—made a quick fake one way and then went the other way and slid the puck into the net, while Parent was still looking the other way. It wasn’t exactly the Gilmour spinorama in the ’93 playoffs, but the simplicity of the play was yet another indication of how smart a player Howe was. 

The other goal was in the second to last regular season game of the 1969-’70 season.  The Wings needed to beat the Rangers at the Olympia to clinch a playoff spot. The Wings had not been in the playoffs since 1966.  Detroit games were always blacked out in our area but a special exception was made by the Red Wings so local fans could see the game. (It was shown on the local UHF station.) In the third period, Howe took a pass and cruised in alone from the wing on Ranger netminder Eddie Giacomin. I don’t know what Howe did, but he did something with his hands at the last second and deked Giacomin to score a gorgeous, game-clinching goal.  There had always been discussion of Howe’s ability to shoot with either hand. He may well have switched hands on the deke on that goal.

When I have the opportunity now to watch old film of the Leaf-Red Wing Stanley Cup finals from 1963 and ’64, I am reminded how good a player Howe really was.  He was already a veteran of more than 15 years in the NHL at that point, but he was outstanding.  Detroit could easily have won the championship in 1964.  Howe was a handful for the Leafs. He made the players around him better, and could play (and often did) between 35 and 40 minutes a night.

You could sometimes see Howe resting on his skates during breaks in the action, catching his breath so he could save his energy for when it mattered. (Bobby Orr, who also rarely seemed to leave the ice, did much the same thing.)

Howe never had Richard’s remarkable propensity for playoff overtime goals, and Richard well earned his reputation as the greatest clutch player of his era.  But Howe (who helped the Wings win four Stanley Cups in the early 1950s) was consistently excellent, a masterful all-around player who, if needed, could play defense when called upon.

Other memories?  My Dad met Gordie one time at the local train station in Windsor, Ontario.  Dad was there to pick up my brother, but while waiting, he noticed some Detroit players were hanging around the station.  (I seem to recall that the Red Wings were on their way to Montreal for a game.)  Gordie was sitting there quietly, doing a crossword puzzle, but made the time to talk with Dad.

Maybe a decade or more ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Gordie and his wife Colleen at a function we were invited to.  Both were very gracious and Colleen was great to speak with. They were both absolutely down to earth, genuine people.

My Dad was none too pleased when Gordie chased and eventually broke the Rocket’s goal-scoring record back in the fall of 1963. But even Dad had to concede what a marvelous player Gordie really was. He used to say Gordie could probably still score 20 goals a season when he was 50 years old—and that was a fairly prophetic comment to make back in the mid 1960s, considering what Howe went on to do.

Gordie didn’t stop once he broke Rocket’s record.  He scored number 600 at the Forum in Montreal against Worsley (he also scored #500 against Gump when Worsley was with the Rangers).  I seem to recall Gordie scored number 700 against Les Binkley and the expansion Penguins in Pittsburgh.

Howe retired after the ’70-’71 season, but returned a couple of years later to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons Mark and Marty. Howe kept playing until the NHL merged with some of the WHA teams, including Gordie’s Hartford Whalers.

Howe scored 15 goals in his last NHL season, at the age of 51. Dad wasn’t far off, eh?

My guess is some VLMers have their own fond memories of the longtime great. He, along with players like Richard, Beliveau, Hull, Orr and many others, of course, helped make hockey the great game it is.



13 comments:

  1. Leafs Fan in MexicoOctober 29, 2014 at 10:14 PM

    Mr. Hockey. Nuf said.

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  2. As a young 7 year old in 1970 I remember visiting my uncle Metro for the first time in Wynyard, Sask. There was a deal going on with the family my father said so we were making the long drive down from northern Manitoba where we lived to visit. I didn't even know it until we got there that my uncle Metro was Metro Prystai that played in the NHL, specifically, for the Red Wings in the 50's and won two cups on the same team as Mr. Hockey.

    I remember walking into Uncle's insurance place and seeing all the pictures on the walls and looking at my dad with confusion and wonderment. He laughed and told me this was a surprise. I'll say. I looked at all the pics of my Uncle with Howe and other Red Wings and with the cup for a few minutes. Then my dad dragged me into the back of the business and there was Uncle Metro AND Gordie Howe himself. Gordie had come to help out with a function during the summer to help raise money for renovations on the local rink.

    Myself, my dad, cousins, and cousins friends all got an hour of peppering Mr. Hockey with a ton of questions that he answered very politely and he mixed in some G rated stories as well.

    It is funny. I cannot remember what we had for supper 3 nights ago but I remember everything that happened that day as if I watched it on TV today.

    I was thinking of this when I read that Gordie had a stroke the other day. Thanks for this post Michael and your memories of the man. He was simply a great hockey player and is still a better person.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your story about Howe as a youngster so many years ago, Pep. (By the way, I never saw Prystai play, I don't believe, but my Dad certainly spoke to me about him as part of those great early 1950s Red Wing squads.) I bet the long drive was worth it that day!

      What you recall about Howe is consistent with my own experience, my Dad's and countless other stories shared by people over the years: just a really good man, and a fantastic hockey player. Thanks Pep.

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  3. Good morning Michael,

    Leafs Fan in Mexico said it all.

    Geordie Howe: top five in scoring for twenty years, perennial all-star and leader of the Detroit dynasty of the early 50's.

    I remember Production Line I of Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe which may have been the best hockey line ever. I believe that they were 1, 2, 3 in league scoring one year. They perfected the shoot-in board carom play that caught the league's immobile goalies of the time completely unawares.

    When Abel retired, Alex Delvecchio replaced him and Production Line II barely missed a beat. Production Line III was formed when Lindsay retired and was replaced by Frank Mahovlich.

    Throughout it all Gordie Howe was the mainstay. He was a combination of skill and grit that had never been seen before. He was feared by opposing teams both for his scoring and his toughness. No player wished to go into a corner with him and most who did came away without the puck and with black and blue reminders from the famous Howe elbows. He played into his 50's and scored 15 goals in his final season.

    It is difficult to compare players of different eras but I believe that Howe is at least one of the top three players to ever play the game.

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    1. You are one of those, like myself, Pete Cam, who was fortunate enough to have seen Howe play- and you likely saw him in his early prime as part of the "Production Line" that you referenced with Lindsay and Abel. As an all-around player, yes, Howe has to be in the top tier of all-time greats. Thanks for posting, Pete.

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  4. Hi Michael

    I lived in London from 1960 - 1966 and we would travel to Detroit Olympia regularly to see the Red Wings from those steep balcony seats.

    Gordie Howe was an incredible hockey player. In my opinion, #2 behind Bobby Orr ever.

    Your comment re pace of game is right on. It would appear that he set the pace of a game which actually looked slower. Interesting enough, no one ever seemed to catch him?

    Gordie had a reputation for having a mean streak. Rather, I would suggest that he did not put up with dirty stuff. For example, in one game I was sitting in a corner seat (not balcony), and Gordie went into corner with Tony Leswick ( a classic pest for Chicago) who had been pestering him for most of the game. In a blink of an eye, Gordie was skating back up the ice with the puck and Leswick was skating groggily and bleeding back to the bench. Neither the referee nor myself (probably 30 feet away) saw what happened. My memory also seems to remember when he had a fight with Ranger tough guy Lou Fontinato (wasn't there) that I believe slowed down Fontinato's attitude for the rest of his career.

    We used to joke that anybody could score 20 goals per year playing on the same line with Howe just by standing in front of the net.

    Great player and understand great person as well. Regret that I never met him when I worked with Scotiabank when he and Beliveau were spokesman.

    Michael, thanks for stirring the memories.



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    1. Very glad you chimed in today, Ralph (RLMcC). Was Leswick not later a teammate of Gordie's in Detroit? I seem to recall my Dad telling me Lesiwck scored a game 7 overtime Cup winner for Detroit against Montreal at the Olympia in the spring of 1954 or '55. (My Dad was in the standing room section at the old Olympia.) And Howe could certainly make those around him better- what a tremendous player.

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    2. Hi Michael:
      Leswick played a number of years for Detroit, only one for Chicago in 50's (hockeydb). Since I know this play was in early 60's, I believe I have identified wrong culprit. Looked up Chicago, in early '60s and real pest may well have been Reggie Fleming??

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    3. Not sure either, Ralph. I remember Fleming as a hard-nosed player. He had a long NHL career- won a Cup with the Hawks in '61, as I recall. And though he was perceived as primarily a fighter, he scored 15 goals a couple of times, I believe, back in the old 6-team NHL.

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  5. I have a Gordie story that most will not have heard. My high school hockey coach was Bob Armstrong who used to play for the Bruins in the 50's. He told us that one year they were playing an early season game against. The Bruins had a rookie who was assigned to Gordie as kind of a trial by fire. The rookie figured that he would make his name by checking Gordie into the ground. He "pested" Gordie for 2 periods. Sometime in the 3rd they were lined up in one end against the boards. Gordie drapes his arm over the rookie's shoulder. To the whole arena Gordie is giving the kid some veteran advice. What really happened is that Gordie put his arm across the kid's neck choking him and said 'back off rookie or I will kill you".

    ... the rookie played a few games and was gone!! Gordie was a scary guy when he wanted to be.

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    1. I think I had an old hockey card of Bob Armstrong when I was a kid, Rosscoe- and recall perhaps watching him on TV in the late '50s with Boston. That's a heck of a good high school coach to have had!

      I think as Ralph (RLMcC) said above, Howe would not necessarily initiate, but he would certainly respond if bothered.

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  6. I seem to recall another special goal from Howe, but I can't remember any of the specifics, except that he had some major stick skills where on one occasion he turned over his stick and put the tip of his blade on the top of the puck (when he couldn't reach and control it any other way) and proceeded to guide the puck into the net (as surely as the ring on the end of a ringette stick). To do something like that in the midst of a play is not something I've seen since.

    My only 'brush' with Gordie came at a 'distance' by proxy and I may have mentioned it before. We became friends with a lady named Molly Gilbeaux at a local lunch counter in a Chinese grocery - she had been Gordie's babysitter when she was 13!

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    1. It's great to hear everyone share their personal memories of Howe- thanks, InTimeFor62.

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