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Howe, Beliveau had mutual respect for one another

NHL legends battled on the ice, were good friends off it

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe died Friday. He was 88. Columnist Dave Stubbs wrote this story on the relationship between Howe and Canadiens icon Jean Beliveau for the Montreal Gazette on April 1, 2007, the day after Howe's 79th birthday. Beliveau died in 2014.

They were at Gordie Howe's table from the lobster martini until well past le temple au chocolat, a queue that stretched for three hours and at least a few thousand calories.

It has been like this for half a century. The admirers of the man called Mr. Hockey never leave his side, arriving for an autograph or to put a hand almost meekly on his famously sloped shoulder for a photo, tongue-tied in this moment of magic.

Howe, who just turned 79, now works a room by having the room come to him. In his first trip to Montreal since the May 2000 funeral of his great rival, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, he was a brilliant star in a glittering Bell Centre galaxy.

Howe was among the 1,000 on hand for a tribute to Jean Beliveau, a spectacular gala that raised more than $1 million for children's hospitals in Quebec.

On this night, the procession to Howe stretched from his table, set over a faceoff circle, out past the blue line. From the corner of his right eye, he could see the head-table guest of honor, properly seated at center ice, their lives still only a few strides apart on a covered sheet of ice.

We are spoiled in Montreal, the grand Beliveau moving easily and elegantly among us. We often hear his silky baritone and feel his warm handshake. We recognize his gait, slowed not by his 75 years but by the countless people who stop him for a word.

Video: 'Mr. Hockey' Gordie Howe passes away at 88

Surely it's like this in Detroit for Howe, a folksy product of the Canadian prairies who moved to the big city to find bigger fame.

But the appeal of Beliveau and Howe is not contained by any city limit. They are icons no matter where they go, hockey pioneers revered as much off the ice as they were on it, perhaps more.

One Hall of Famer after another walked into a Bell Centre interview room before the gala -- Toronto goaltender Johnny Bower; Canadiens center Henri Richard and the team's Big Three defensemen, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe; and Rangers goalie Eddie Giacomin.

Then Howe turned the corner and simply took the breath out of everyone. His gnarled right paw swallowed every hand it shook, the left tip of his bowtie dipping not unlike the way he would drop a shoulder to shrug off a check.

Howe and Beliveau go back to the autumn of 1950, when the former was a blossoming, 22-year-old right-winger with the Detroit Red Wings and the latter still just a dream for the Canadiens, filling the newly rebuilt Colisee as a teenage centerman for the junior-league Quebec Citadelles and senior Aces.

"I had the good fortune to first meet John in Quebec City," Howe recalled of their first encounter, an exhibition game between the Red Wings and the Aces. "We talked a little bit. I looked at him, saw some of the moves he made in practice.

"We went into the room between periods and somebody said: 'Someone stay close to that guy, he'll kill us.'

"Later I said: 'John's going to be unbelievable.' I'd have been a heck of a scout. We were all in agreement in the bus that night - that kid's going to be a star, and he didn't disappoint any of us."

Howe's one question had been about the boiling point of Beliveau's blood.

"I wondered whether John was mean enough to be a hockey player. What if I run him?" he said. "Well, I gave him a little run, and he just smiled. I said: 'Yeah, he's OK,' and that's the only time I ever tested him.

"I admire John not just because of his great, great ability as a hockey player, but for his demeanor in public. He's a complete gentleman. He came out to Saskatoon for a parade long ago, and four of my sisters came home 15 minutes after meeting him and said: 'We used to be Detroit fans.'

"The respect I have for this man is unreal, and it started the first time I ever saw him up in Quebec City. If you think he's a good hockey player, as a gentleman he's even better."

Many historians consider Howe the greatest player of all time, notwithstanding the obscene statistics of Wayne Gretzky. Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, and raised in Saskatoon, the legendary forward played an unprecedented 26 NHL seasons, from 1946-80, scoring 801 goals with 1,049 assists in 1,767 regular-season games while winning the Stanley Cup four times with Detroit.

Twenty-three times he was an all-star; six times each he was the NHL's leading scorer and its most valuable player.

Against the Canadiens on April 11, 1980, nine years after Beliveau had retired, Howe became the oldest man - 52 years and 10 days - to play an NHL game, his Hartford Whalers losing 4-3 to the Canadiens.

Both men believe they made each other better players, the comparisons constantly drawn between two strong, dominant athletes during the glory days of the six-team NHL.

Video: Nick Cotsonika on how Gordie Howe impacted Detroit

Howe was so powerful, Beliveau wrote in his autobiography, that "trying to strong-arm Gordie off the puck in a corner was akin to wrestling with a telephone pole."

"Gordie's being here showed how much he's done during his life outside the game," Beliveau said, his voice still thin from overuse at the gala.

"On the ice, he could do everything and make it look so easy. I always had so much respect for the fact he could do anything. There's no doubt I'm very happy to have played my 18 years when Gordie was there."

They fought hard, but within the rules during a time of bitter rivalries, when teams met each other 14 or more times per season. Neither recalls ever dropping the gloves against the other.

It was the late Rocket Richard, a fellow right-winger, that lore has Howe detesting.

"There was no dislike," Howe said. "I respected him. I'd watch every move he made, if it could benefit my hockey. ...

"They always thought there was bad blood because I hit him once coming across the line and he spun like a rocket and fell down. He wasn't hurt that much and I started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when there were eight guys on me.

"I felt sorry for the Rocket. I never felt he enjoyed the game. If he wasn't having a good night, he'd just as soon explode. That fellow didn't know when to stop, did he? But I admired him."

So much so that Howe named his dog for Richard. Surely the four-legged Rocket is a ferocious, brooding beast?

Howe leans in close.

"A toy poodle," he whispered, his playfulness worn in a grin.

The gala gave Howe a night out to renew a unique friendship. Beliveau joyfully recalls having attended Howe's charity golf tournament years ago, and sleeping at his host's home after a past-midnight reminiscence beneath the stars.

"John was an entertaining, unselfish, tremendous player with the ability to set up goals at will," Howe said.

"As much as I've talked about him through the years, I've never had anyone say a darned thing bad about him. We didn't play on the same team, but I consider John my friend. And that makes me a better man."

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