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Howe remembered as one of the greatest players of all time

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

I think the best thing you can say about Gordie is that he was a great a person as he was a player. And to me, to a lot of us, he was the greatest player ever.Mike Rogers on Gordie Howe

It’s a parlour game we all play. Piecing together a composite player, piece by piece, attribute by attribute, intangible by intangible, to create the perfect hockey-playing specimen.

A Frankenstein monster of the game, if you will.

Gretzky’s computer-wired brain, probably. Bobby Orr’s whitewall tires. Bobby Hull’s wrecking-ball of a shot. Rocket Richard’s eyes, like the glow of two hot coals pulsating in a blackened tunnel.

But many of the pieces in that ideal composite would belong to Gordie Howe.

“Many of the pieces?’’ grunts longtime Calgary Flames’ executive Al MacNeil. “How about almost all of the pieces.

“Whether he thought the game as well as Gretzky might be up for discussion.

“But the over-all package … to be able to visualize what was happening on the ice and then react in a superstar way … That was his mettle. That was what he was about.

“Every era is different. And it’s tough to compare. But I always say that the guy who would’ve transcended all eras, any era - who could’ve played at any time in the game’s history - was Howe.

“The greatest player I ever saw.

“That’s taking nothing away from guys like Gretzky or Orr. I coached against them both. They were unbelievable players.

“But Howe … I’d take him over anybody.”

We awoke to the news Friday that Gordie Howe had passed away at the age of 88. A couple days ago, it was three-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky.

Two of the giants of the last century, The Greatest and Mr. Hockey, gone within the space of a week.

For anyone who dotes on sports, you wanted to just find the nearest dark cubbyhole, crawl in curled up in a foetal position and simply tune out the world for a while.

“He was such a graceful athlete,’’ remembers MacNeil of Howe. “People don’t give him credit for that side of his game, but he was. He was very fluid. Effortless. He skated so straight up. He defied the knee-bent way you were supposed to skate. It came so naturally to him.

“And the power. Shoulders that kind of ran into these huge arms. ‘Freakish’ isn’t a kind enough word, but it fits. I mean, who plays until he's 50?

“Other guys do this well or that well. Howe did everything well.

“Skate. Shoot. Make plays. Think the game. Hit.”

And those legendary elbows …

“I was a kid, playing for the Leafs,’’ recalls MacNeil. “I’m playing Howe in front. So I give him a little jab. Nothing back. But next time out there … holy ——-! He elbowed me so hard I thought he’d broken my larynx. I mean I couldn’t breathe. I could barely get back to the bench.

“The whole purpose of his game was he wanted his space out there. If you gave him that space, everything was fine. If you didn’t … well, he had a long memory longer than an elephant’s. He took numbers.”

In selecting a single individual to represent us, as Canadians, as a nation, that person just might be Gordie Howe.

He embodied the best of our virtues; at least the virtues we pride ourselves on. Our tenacity. Our toughness. Our humbleness. The small-town kid who took the big-city of Detroit by storm and made it his own.

A farm kid born in Floral, SK, one of nine kids.

Floral. Really.

How Canadian can it possibly get?

“It’s fair to say if you were playing with him, you loved him,’’ says former Flames’ GM Al Coates, who knew Howe in the Detroit organization. “If you weren’t playing with him, you respected him.

“There were only two categories. There really was no in-between.

“I was fortunate enough to get to know Gordie as a person. There was a contradiction between two people: The one that played the game and the off-the-ice personality bigger than life itself. The kindness, the sincerity, the humbleness, the class … someone who loved the simplest things in life. Fishing, hunting, golf with friends. And no fanfare - Don’t need it, don’t want it.

“He embodied the kind of thing Bill Brownridge depicted in all of his paintings - the Saskatchewan ponds, all those outdoor games. That was carried to junior and then into Detroit.”

Coates treasures the story of Howe’s first set of blades. A barter deal between Gordie’s mom and neighbour for goods brought back, in part, a pair of skates.

Gordie got one skate, his sister the other.

“Because it was 30-below zero the sister wasn’t too crazy about playing.

“So Gordie got the other one when he gave his sister a dime.’’

Mr. Goalie, Glenn Hall, first a teammate of Howe’s and then a rival, returned a call from outside St. Louis, where he and son Pat have traveled on a road trip. Now 84 years young, he paid homage to Mr. Hockey.

“The team up in heaven just got a little stronger,’’ the one-time Flames goaltending coach said. “We’ve lost so many in the last while. We lost Beliveau and Dickie Moore and Bert Olmstead and I know I’m missing some more that I shouldn’t.

“I think my name just moved up damn near to the top of the list,’’ he laughed. “I’ve got a pencil and I can figure things out, too.”

Would he consider No. 9 the greatest ever?

“That’s always the debate isn’t it? The old guys would pick Gordie,’’ replied Hall. “A few years later, they’d pick Bobby Orr and then people would take Gretzky and Lemieux, and now you’re into Crosby and whomever.

“They’re all great, great hockey players. But in my opinion, Gordie was the best I’ve ever seen. He did things no one else could do, no one else had ever thought of.

“Most of the players, you’ll see them peek at a corner, and it’s a tip off to where they’re going. If you saw Gordie peek, you knew one thing - he wasn’t going to the direction he peeked at. He was going somewhere else.

“Just an unbelievable player.”

Longtime NHLer and former Flames’ colour broadcaster Mike Rogers grew up a Howe fan and then wound up playing alongside him.

“He was my idol. Scrapbook. Posters. Newspaper clippings. Anything that Gordie Howe’s name attached to it, I had it.

“All of a sudden, turn pro, then I’m playing against the man. And you see what all the fuss is about. And then I’m sitting in the same room, him right across from me. I must’ve looked like a starstruck kid.

“You know how long that lasted? Maybe a day. After that, I was a teammate, I was a friend. He made it that easy.”

Howe stories are, of course, legendary.

The Bridge Game immediately pops to mind.

During a back-to-back weekend contests one year, home and away, Detroit-Montreal, players from both teams were engaged in a bridge game in the card car of the train. Habs’ defenceman J.C. Tremblay was seated, playing. Howe - who considered himself something of an expert at the game - stood by, watching.

“Don’t do that,” Gordie advised when he saw Tremblay start to make a play.

“F—- off!” fired the defenceman over a shoulder.

Everyone in the car froze. Howe stiffened, then walked out.

Fast forward, months later. Tremblay chasing a puck down in the corner at the old Forum, Howe in pursuit. Puck’s gone, and suddenly Tremblay is laying in that same corner, like a crumpled marionette, Howe skating away, blinking furiously.

As Howe skated to the penalty box, one the Canadiens in the card card that night leans on the boards and says: “Bridge game?”

“Yup.”

Radio legend Peter Maher’s long-time press box sidekick Doug Barkley played with Howe in Detroit, witnessing the majesty up close.

 “I’ve told this story often,’’ he’s reminiscing. “The night Gordie scored his 500th goal. He gets it and they give him a standing ovation. Real nice gesture. Well, a shift or two later, he buries J.C. Tremblay into the boards and they give him a standing boo.

“Gordie didn’t care. He wasn’t changing his game.

“With him, the mold was made, broken and you can’t replace it. He had everything. Size. Strength. Great ability, of course. I’m sure he could’ve played goal or defence if he wanted to.
“Great natural athlete. Could’ve been a Major League baseball player or a PGA golfer.

“He was that talented.”

During his days in Chicago, MacNeil remembers Mikita, another who carved out territory, in his pre-Lady Byng days, taunting Howe mercilessly.

“I’m going to get you, Howe! I’m going to stick you, Howe!’

And Gordie, blinking furiously, looking on with benign amusement.

“I’m here all night, son.”

Another of the great Gordie yarns comes courtesy of Rogers, during their days together at Hartford.

"We're playing against the Winnipeg Jets one night, against (Anders) Hedberg, (Bobby) Hull and (Ulf) Nilsson. In Hartford,’’ he recalled recently. “They're beating us like 6-2. I'm sitting beside Gordie on the bench and he says, 'Know what, Mike, I've had enough.' And I'm like 'I have, too, Gordie, but what are we going to do about it?'

"He goes out on the ice, next shift, and Hedberg and Nilsson, all of a sudden, are both headed to the dressing room to get stitched. And Bobby's bleeding. Gordie finally gets a penalty for slicing Bobby. Then gets two more for complaining to the official about why he was getting a penalty. So, unsportsmanlike.

"He gets back to the bench, I'm sitting beside him again and I say 'Gordie, that was unbelievable. THREE of them.' And he says 'Yeah. Coulda been worse.' I say: 'Whaddaya mean?'

“And he says: 'Well, I like Bobby so I only cut him a little bit.’”

Now, at the end, go beyond the statistics, the awards - those four Stanley Cups, six Hart trophies, the 23 All-Star selections, the 1,850 points, the grader of his NHL-WHL years between 1946 and 1980, the peerless legacy of subtlety and savagery.

This is a man that perhaps best embodies us as the nation we want to be.

“He struck a chord with so many people,’’ says Rogers softly. “All I can think about today is a guy I called my friend, my buddy. A guy who never forgot his roots.

“So when I heard this morning, reflecting about it now, brings a tear to my eye …

“It’s a sad, sad day.

“I think the best thing you can say about Gordie is that he was a great a person as he was a player.

“And to me, to a lot of us, he was the greatest player ever.”

As an epitaph, that’ll do.

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