"Gordie was the consummate gentleman and diplomat, as he has remained to this day. He made rookies and vets alike feel important to the team and it was a great learning experience to be involved with a guy like Gordie in the early stages of my life." -- Gerry Hart on Gordie Howe
For a lot of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds attending their initial camp, there is a lot of trepidation. Those youngsters have worked most of their childhoods to get to camp and try to make an NHL team.
Gerry Hart was a pretty good player with the Flin Flon Bombers of the Western Canada Junior Hockey Association, so good that he was a WCJHA first-team defenseman in 1967-68. Flin Flon had a really good team that season -- featuring Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Hart. Still, Hart was small and even though he scored 22 goals and racked up 290 penalty minutes in his final junior season, that didn't guarantee him anything.
Hart ended up in the Detroit Red Wings' training camp in 1968 and found an unlikely friend.
"As a kid from Manitoba, I have to say that my first NHL game was a game that I actually played in," Hart said. "To step on the ice with the likes of Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio was pretty awesome and intimidating.
"But Gordie was the consummate gentleman and diplomat, as he has remained to this day. He made rookies and vets alike feel important to the team and it was a great learning experience to be involved with a guy like Gordie in the early stages of my life."
The 20-year-old all of a sudden found himself as a member of Gordie's inner circle.
"He always had time for everybody. I wasn't there a week and he invited me back to his home and to have dinner with him, (wife) Colleen and the family. When you have that kind of a person play that kind of role on a team, you can imagine how awesome he was as a team leader and as a motivating guy."
So Hart is invited to dinner at the Howe home and needs to let people know immediately that Gordie is having him over. Back in the 1960s, the Internet was just getting going as a United States military venture and there wasn't a cell phone to be found, so it took a while for Hart to let his family know that he was hanging with Gordie Howe in the Howe house with the Howe family.
"I am thinking 'I can't wait to call home and tell my mom and dad I am having dinner with Gordie Howe,'" he laughed.
Hart said the thought of spending an evening at Gordie's house wasn't scary for a kid just out of Flin Flon.
"Not a bit," he said. "The intimidating part was going through training camp, the intimidating part was stepping on the ice and play with a guy you have only seen and heard of on TV and radio, so it took me a while to get adjusted needless to say."
Hart was able to watch Gordie firsthand as a teammate and also keep a close on eye him from the bench.
"Gordie was also very playful and he had a great sense of humor and he loved to get under a guy's skin a little bit," Hart added. "It was just part of Gordie, that is how he enjoyed the game. All of the great players who have played the game, they all have made it look easy -- whether it was Gordie or Gretzky or Lemieux, those guys stepped on the ice, they made the game look easy. So the things that they did were overwhelmingly creative and talent laden, but it didn't or wasn't something that was a circus act."
Hart echoed what one of Howe's teammates, Pete Stemkowski, pointed out about Gordie years ago. Stemkowski noted that Gordie also kept his mind active. While Red Wings teammates would sleep on planes from city to city, Gordie would always do a crossword puzzle. In the locker room in between periods, Gordie always had a crossword puzzle in front of him.
"Gordie loved crossword puzzles; he always had a crossword puzzle going," Hart said. "Gordie was a pretty sophisticated guy, he was never intimidated by anybody or anything. I was pretty awe-inspired by Gordie."
Le Colisee in Quebec and the Montreal Forum had no glass between the benches and the players, which might have been a problem, but the fans left the players to tend to their business, which was playing hockey.
"It was the old coliseum and you were right in amongst the crowd as you were in the Forum in back those days too," he said. "A lot of the rinks were like that. They were very sophisticated crowds, so they never interfered with the players or the flow of the game. You had a very sophisticated audience in French Canada and they took a great deal of pride in the guy and the way the game was played as they do today."
Hart finished up with the St. Louis Blues in 1983 and returned to Long Island, where he became a rink owner in Hauppauge and started developing young hockey talent -- with some of his players eventually ending up in the NHL. Hart, who is an astute businessman, hired Lithuanian hockey coach and former Dynamo Riga player Aleksey Nikiforov to run the ice hockey program and suddenly Long Island became a hockey development center. Some of the players who've passed through Hart's rink include Calgary's Eric Nystrom, Toronto's Mike Komisarek, the New York Rangers' Chris Higgins, Rob Scuderi of the Los Angeles Kings, along with the New York Rangers' Matt Gilroy and the New York Islanders' Tony Romano. Hart sold the rink in 2004.
Hart is a member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.