SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson's mind is still very much on the Stanley Cup Final, with Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday at SAP Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). But the death of Gordie Howe on Friday at age 88 had Wilson thinking back to a kindness "Mr. Hockey" once showed him during his playing days.
Howe was 51 years old and back in NHL for a final season with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80. Wilson was a young defensemen with the Chicago Blackhawks, meeting the playing legend for the first time under painful circumstances.
"I got tripped into a goal post, and in those days the nets were anchored down by the longer posts," Wilson recalled Saturday. "I hurt my knee badly and I was carried off the ice, and I'm in our training room and, after the first period, in walks Mr. Howe. He walked all the way around the rink in his equipment to come in and check and make sure I was OK. He was the toughest guy and arguably one of the greatest that ever played, and he took time to see if I was OK. That always stuck with me."
Howe had a reputation for playing with a mean streak, so Wilson wasn't sure of his intentions when he entered the room.
"I thought he was coming in to hit me," Wilson joked. "But I was just in awe. Our trainer was there and he just [said], 'Are you going to be OK? I hope everything is fine.' And he said, 'You're going to go on and have a great career.' I'm a kid and, for him to even think about doing it, let alone doing it, tells you everything you need to know about the man."
Video: Sharks F Thornton, GM Wilson remember Gordie Howe
Howe would sometimes try to test young opponents physically to see how they would respond. Wilson said he didn't know if Howe contributed to him crashing into the goal post, "but even if [he did], it was an accident.
"He was one of those guys that if he was going to hit you, he was going to hit you," Wilson said. "But the fact that he took the time to walk all the way around the arena; still to this day I can't believe it. It's what makes our game so great, to see people like that having compassion. Playing hard and playing tough, but caring about other people."
Wilson, 58, learned that day what many have said over the years about Howe.
"One of the reasons our game is so great is because of guys like Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau and Stan Mikita and Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky," he said. "Beyond their greatness on the ice, they're just amazing people that realize how important people and family really is."
Wilson played golf with Howe years later and thanked him for showing his concern that day.
"I told him how much it meant to me," Wilson said. "Certain things in your career, especially at certain times, you're [young] and you think you could be really seriously hurt and, for him to do that, that just comes from somewhere that's incredible."
Wilson said it's been "probably seven or eight years" since he had last talked to Howe. He often runs into his son, Mark Howe, who is a scout for the Red Wings, and once told him the story about how he first met his father.
"When I played against him, he was (51) and he still scared the [crap out of all of us," Wilson said. "But the guys that played against him in his prime just said he was incredible. You can't rank them, but you could say he's the greatest forward of all time. In my mind, Bobby Orr was the greatest defenseman. [Gretzky] is right there, too. So it's just the quality of the human being."