GLENDALE -- I met Gordie Howe in 1987 when I was working in the International Hockey League for the Peoria Rivermen. As is the case with all minor league teams, a strong promotions calendar is critical in selling tickets and subsequently, aiding in the financial success of the team.
That season, we decided to hold “Gordie Howe Night” at the Civic Center. As part of the promotion, Gordie flew into the city the morning of the game and basically did whatever we asked of him. That included a youth hockey clinic, a partner/sponsor/season-ticket holder schmooze, a game day luncheon event and, of course, a ceremonial puck drop and autograph session during the game.
I remember driving to the airport with our head coach, Pat Kelly, to pick him up. Upon meeting him, he couldn’t have been nicer. He was engaging from the start. I was in awe and overwhelmed at times as I sat in the back seat of Kelly’s Pontiac Bonneville and listened to the stories coming from the front bench.
At the game day luncheon, Gordie produced a sellout crowd. Tables were packed in tight to accommodate close to 200 fans all looking forward to hearing the stories and laughing at his jokes. It was by far the largest game day luncheon ever held in the history of the team and larger than most of the Bradley Basketball game day luncheons in hoops crazy central Illinois.
After the luncheon, we headed back to the office where he was introduced to the entire staff. Since we had some downtime, I offered him a seat in my office and something to drink.
There I was, a 24-year-old Public Relations Director/Broadcaster hanging out with "Mr. Hockey."
|Matt McConnell, Gordie Howe and Pat Kelly in 1987. Photo courtey of Matt McConnell. |
I was just a bit nervous to say the least. But Gordie had a way of making you feel at ease. He asked about the team, asked about my professional aspirations, wanted to know my background. He asked about my family, showing genuine interest every step of the way.
It was at that point that I mentioned my mom.
“You know Mr. Howe, I have to tell you. My mom has always been a huge fan of yours,” I confessed. “I can’t tell you how many times we’d have family arguments about who’s the greatest hockey player of all time. My dad would always say Bobby Hull. But my mom would always say Gordie Howe!”
He laughed, quickly singing the praises of the "Golden Jet" and deflecting any of the attention away from himself.
Then came an idea.
“Mr. Howe, since we have a few minutes here, I was wondering if you could do me a big favor,” I asked.
“Sure, Matt,” he replied. “What do you need?”
“Would it be possible for you to say hello to my mom if I picked up the phone and called her?”
“Of course,” he said. “Not a problem at all. What is your mother’s name?”
“Josephine,” I told him.
So I picked up the phone and dialed the house number in Indiana. After a couple of rings, she answered.
“Hi mom,” I said. “I’m sitting in my office here in Peoria and there’s someone that would like to say hello to you.”
I handed the phone to Gordie and let "Mr. Hockey" run his magic.
“Hello, Mrs. McConnell. This is Gordie Howe. How are you today?”
They talked for more than 10 minutes. Gordie asked her about being a fan, about the family. He even tried to convince her there were many better players than he.
The chat went on… and on as if Gordie didn’t want it to end. I’m sure that’s how my mom felt!
He was genuine as always. He was simply being himself. Eventually, we had to head out to the youth clinic and Gordie said goodbye.
“Well, it’s been great talking with you Mrs. McConnell. I hope you have a wonderful day,” he told her.
He handed me the receiver so I could say goodbye to her.
“Well, mom, I hope you enjoyed your conversation,” I said.
Before she replied, there was a pause on her end as she tried to collect her thoughts and emotions.
“Matt, I can’t believe that just happened,” she said. “Please tell him thank you again.”
The day continued with the youth hockey clinic, where I was in charge of Gordie’s 1955 Stanley Cup ring while he hit the ice and instructed the kids. Later that night, he chatted up the fans seeking his autograph and stayed well beyond the final horn to make sure everyone went home with a signature. One of those signed photos was “To Josephine,” which was displayed in our family basement until her death in 2012.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Hockey.