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Penguins GM reflects on former teammate Howe

Rutherford played with 'Mr. Hockey' on Red Wings as rookie goalie

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- It was the early 1970s, and Jim Rutherford was a young goaltender with the Detroit Red Wings. His grandfather had died, and he had decided to go to the funeral even though the team didn't want to give him the time off.

Gordie Howe came up from behind and gave him a little elbow.

"Hey, kid," Howe said. "Good for you. That's exactly what you should have done."

Howe put Rutherford at ease at a difficult moment.

Now general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks, Rutherford told that story Saturday while the hockey world mourned Howe, who died Friday at age 88.

Howe, one of the greatest players and ambassadors in hockey history, was tough on the ice but warm off of it, and Rutherford got to experience it up close. He was a rookie with the Red Wings in 1970-71, Howe's last of 25 seasons in Detroit.

Rutherford had grown up north of Toronto, and when he got the chance to fulfill his dream of playing at Maple Leaf Gardens the first time, he gave up three goals and got pulled in the first period.

Video: Jim Rutherford talks to reporters on Gordie Howe

"[Howe] was the first guy in between periods to come over and say, 'It's OK,'" Rutherford said. "But it really wasn't OK, because we ended up losing 13-0."

That was Gordie.

"He just had a special way about him," Rutherford said. "If somebody was struggling with something, in his own way he would go by and say something to him. It might not be long. He may not say, 'Hey, do you want to go somewhere and talk?' He'd walk by and kind of catch you from behind, and he'd give you a little poke or a little elbow and he'd say a few words, which meant a lot. His character and his leadership were second to none."

Rutherford has spent five decades in the NHL as a player and executive. He said he couldn't think of anyone who could "even come close" to comparing to Howe as a player.

"He played the game in a way like really no other superstar played it," Rutherford said. "I mean, he could play in all situations and all types of games, whether it was the physical game or finesse game, and he could win games in so many different ways. And so he was really the true power forward as we know but obviously better than any we've ever seen. …

"He was a guy that could win a scoring race, or he was a guy who could win the fight. He could do everything. And some of the power forwards now can do some of those things, but not at the level he did."

Facing Howe in practice wasn't fun for a goaltender, to say the least, but he was so good that it often hurt mentally, not physically.

"In those days, we used wrist shots probably as much as we use slap shots now," Rutherford said. "He had a very, very heavy shot, and he practiced the way he played games. He played for keeps. So he was trying to score all the time. It was a hard, heavy shot. But it probably didn't hit me very much. It went by me."

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