There was a lot on the table at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday afternoon when the Detroit Red Wings
hosted the Nashville Predators
. The Red Wings had a chance to capture the Presidents' Trophy for the best record during the regular season, while Nashville was continuing its strong late-season bid to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There was even the sense that this game could be a preview of a first-round Stanley Cup Playoff matchup in the Western Conference.
But first, the Red Wings took time to honor Gordie Howe
, their all-time leading scorer, on the day before his 80th birthday. There's an old story that Howe, at his first tryout, told General Manager Jack Adams
that he wanted a Red Wings’ jacket for a signing bonus. Later, he beefed that he might not want to sign a contract with an organization that went back on its promise to give him a jacket. He got the jacket – and a contract – and the rest is history.
Joe Louis Arena erupted in applause as Howe walked the red carpet to center ice, where he was met by current Red Wings' General Manager Ken Holland, who presented Howe with a more-modern leather Red Wings’ jacket. Howe wore it proudly for the remainder of the day.
"I still have the other one, corduroy. And, it fits," Howe said. "This thing is heavy. They've treated me pretty darn nice here."
"I think Gordie Howe
is the greatest hockey player of all time, certainly the greatest power forward of all time," Holland said. "He was the greatest player in the history of this franchise, and I think that he and Steve Yzerman
are without a doubt the two greatest players to wear the Red Wings' uniform.
"This is a big day for the franchise, honoring Gordie Howe
the day before his 80th birthday and playing the Nashville Predators
, who are battling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. We need three points to capture the President's Cup and we could get them today."
Someone told Holland that perhaps Howe would bring the Red Wings some luck.
"He certainly has before," Holland said.
They also presented Howe with a copy of the scoresheet from his first NHL game, when he scored against Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Turk Broda.
"I had two linemates in Ted Lindsay and Big Sidney (Abel) and we had parties – not parties, educational programs at Sid's place or on the train. I remember Sid was in the corner and I went in to give him a hand. He said, ‘What are you doing here?’, and I said, ‘I'm helping.’ Helping? He says, ‘You're in the way. Get in front of the net so I have someone to pass to.’ So, in my first NHL game, that's what I did, and he hit me right in front of the net and I scored. I scored in my first NHL game ever … scored against Toronto."
Predators General Manager David Poile was in attendance and recalled that his dad, Bud, played with the Red Wings and later coached in the organization's minor-league system.
"It means a lot to me to be here today,” Poile said. “It's lucky scheduling, I guess. My dad worked for the Red Wings' organization for a long time. First, he played for them. Then, he coached the Edmonton Flyers, which was the Red Wings' No. 1 farm club for a long time. All the Red Wings' players came through Edmonton, Glenn Hall, Vic Stasiuk, Johnny Bucyk, Al Arbour, Norm Ullman, a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame.
"My dad was very close with Gordie Howe and he thought Gordie was the greatest player ever. Nobody else was even close. My dad gave him the nickname, ‘Power,’ before he was Mr. Hockey. My dad was named the NHL Second All-Star Team right winger in the 1947-48 season when he was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the next 10 seasons, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard were the right wingers on the First or Second All-Star Team. So, my dad was the last person to make an All-Star Team at that position until the Rocket retired. And, Gordie made it almost every year for the next 20 years." (Note: Howe had a bit of an off-year in 1955. Richard and Bernie Geoffrion were the All Stars that season.)
Howe reflected on his relationship with Richard, which has been described as testy. Not so, he said.
"Everybody thought we were enemies. On the ice, yes,” Howe said. “That's what I got paid for, to stop him and beat him. But off the ice, we played golf together. I couldn't understand him, but we played cards on the train, a little bit of bridge. I was even in the wrong car, sitting in their car. There was a certain amount of friendship, but nobody got meaner when they dropped the puck for the game. He wouldn't talk to you. He was so funny. He came to hit me one time and I dropped him. I was laughing at him and he got so angry that he threw his stick into the crowd at the Forum.
"For a strong man, I didn't think he was as hard to knock off the puck as some other guys they had there but he was fast. His love for the game was unbelievable. You'd get some good lessons if you sat around him for awhile. Remember the good times, not the bad ones."
Howe was one of the strongest players in the NHL during his career and he got the number of every player who delivered a dirty check or slash. He was asked if he was a rough player.
|A couple of Detroit Red Wing fans hold up the commerative posters honoring Gordie Howe on his 80th birthday.
"Nah,” he replied. “C'mon, I was playing in the League and saw guys fighting on the train. Now, how bad is that? Lindsay was one of them. He'd fight his mother if he lost. Ted was a good leader and a good man. He was fierce when he played. I didn't exactly smile during the game and when I saw a guy, I hit him. You hit a guy and then you have to play him a dozen more times that season, he'd be looking for you. I had some good teachers in how to handle myself."
Howe said he thinks the game is in great shape and populated by a lot of players that he admires. He said he thinks Sidney Crosby could surpass the records that he set nearly 40 years ago. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier have more points than Howe, who last played since 1980, when he was 52 and had 15 goals and 41 points.
"Woulda had more, but they left my fanny on the bench too long,” Howe cracked. “I felt really good in the middle of that season."
Howe had a lot of good linemates in his career, such as Lindsay, Abel, Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich. But he said his son, Mark, was one of the best.
"When I stepped on the ice, I knew exactly where he was."
Howe was enjoying a nice, relaxed conversation with the media until a Detroit reporter asked him if he thought it was an injustice that Mark Howe is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Howe drew himself up straight and barked.
"Yes. Check his record,” Howe said. “He wasn't a troublemaker and he did his job. All his coaches told me that he just doesn't get the credit he deserves. He played on teams that were always first or second, and he led the League in plus-minus several times. He beat everybody by about 20 goals and he was a defenseman. I got mad when they put him on defense because I lost my winger."
Howe was asked if he understands the love that Detroit fans have for him, even though he hasn't worn the uniform since 1971.
"I think it was my love for the game,” Howe said. “The fans are not dummies. Here in Detroit, we have really smart fans. The fans saw the way we played and acted. I told my son, Marty, you have to respect the people who pay your salary and you have to respect the management. Play your buns off and take whatever comes from it."
Howe always was and remains unable to play interviews straight. One longtime Detroit reporter said hello and was greeted in return with, "Tell the truth."
A member of the publicity staff interrupted the interview to let Howe know he had another obligation.
"C'mon, Gordie, we have to go down to the Zamboni room."
Gordie gave the press a wave and a wink and said, "Yeah, they need me to change a tire."
Contact John McGourty at: email@example.com.