"Hello, Gordie Howe here."
"Hello, Gordie. Happy 80th Birthday."
"Boy, that number scares the hell out of me," Howe responded.
"Better than not turning 80, no?"
"Absolutely. And I'm getting around and feeling pretty good. I was out in Vancouver last week when the defending Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants wrapped up their season. I'm a part owner, along with Pat Quinn. Jean Believeau, Marcel Dionne and Pat Quinn came out for a little ceremony they had for me. It was four days of rush, rush, rush. Now, I know what 80 feels like."
Still sharp and strong and full of fun, Howe took time to thank his fans and share some thoughts with NHL.com readers as his birthday, March 31, approaches.
Howe’s come a long way from the unincorporated little farm village a little bit south of Saskatoon, and there have a been a lot of names and faces to remember.
Howe was asked about the roots of his love for hockey.
"I grew up during the Depression in a big family in Western Canada," Howe recalled. "There wasn't a lot of money. We got help from some of the teachers when I went to King George High School in Saskatoon. Mr. Trickey was the coach and he made sure I had the equipment I needed to play. I was only 14 when I went to the New York Rangers training camp and a scout gave me a pair of skates. I told him, 'Watch out. I'm a thief. Once I tie them up, you don't get them back!'
"Mr. Trickey came to me when I was starting to play for the school team and told me that even though I was the youngest on the team that he wanted me to be the captain. The older guys said they had no problem with me doing that. Then, the coach let me put the lines out. That worked for me because we were shorthanded so I never came off the ice! That was fun."
Gordie had the experience of being a hockey parent later in life. His three sons, Marty, Mark and Murray, all pursued hockey careers. Mark and Marty had fine playing careers and have remained in the game, Mark as a scout for the Detroit Red Wings and Marty as a coach.
"Kids need help just as much today as I did back then," Gordie said. "What kid can afford ice time? Parents have to do an awful lot when they have a kid who wants to pursue a hockey career.
"Nobody who ever made it into the NHL did it alone. Everyone gets help or they don't get there, whether it's your parents or a coach or another player. When my brother, Vern, played senior hockey before he went in the Army in World War II, I was his biggest fan. I was a little, tiny bugger, 8 or 9 years old and I always wanted to go to the rink, walk to the rink, three miles away.
"I'd get all dressed up and Vern would put out two bags and I'd carry the one with his uniform. I would go into the rink and into the dressing room with him. I learned so much, especially the language! But it really was a learning experience. Vern would tell me to watch so-and-so if I wanted to be a good right winger.
"Harry Watson was five years older than me and playing in the NHL during the war," Howe continued. "He'd come home and tell me about what it was like to play in the League. I remember him instructing me in puckhandling down at the bus turnaround circle in Saskatoon. It was brightly lit at night and we'd practice for hours."
That recalled a story Howe told NHL.com a few years ago about Watson's continued interest and assistance.
"Harry got me an invitation to a charity game for Air Force families when I was 14 and I scored a goal against Turk Broda; a 14-year-old kid scoring on an NHL goaltender. How about that? Turk was aware of me because he knew my five sisters. After the game, he said, 'We'll see you in the NHL.' My first NHL game was against Toronto and again I scored on Broda. He looked at me and said, "I told you you'd be here." My first game and it's one of my career highlights to think someone of that stature would remember me."
|The New York Rangers passed on Gordie Howe when he failed to impress them at their 1944 training camp. |
Howe was disappointed when he went to the New York Rangers training camp in 1944 and they showed little interest; but he did better -- or the Detroit Red Wings projected that he would get better than the Rangers thought he would -- the following year. General Manager Jack Adams signed him to a contract and sent him to their farm team in Omaha.
"Tommy Atkins was my coach in Omaha and he became one of the people that I liked the most in hockey," Howe said. "He was like a private tutor to me for things on and off the ice. He was a good hockey coach but he also taught me what to say and do and that helped me a lot because I was shy.
"People didn't know that when I was speaking in those first few years that those were his words and they served me well. He also inspired me to do a lot more reading and that was really my education."
Howe looks back at the era of hockey he broke into and the incredible differences in compensation compared to today's salaries.
"I was way ahead in the world in 1946," he said. "I was making $2,350 a year and coming from where I started and what I grew up with, that was good money. It made me feel like I did the right thing, pursued the right course.
"I had linemates that were a little older, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, and they advised me well regarding the downfalls and pitfalls of the game. I did alright, obviously. I had some good teachers, including Jack Adams."
Howe cringes sometimes when he watches modern hockey. He feels players don't have the respect of each other that once existed and it has led to some serious injuries. He said opponents would call out before they checked you, so you'd be braced for a hit.
In many cases, opposing teams would travel on the same trains to and from games. Some players would mix with the opposition in card games or the bar car and some were adamant that such camaraderie was wrong.
And, the competition was tough. In Howe’s first four years in the NHL, all six teams made it to the Stanley Cup Final at least once.
|Gordie Howe was the game's top star during the Original Six era. |
"Everybody was competitive at that time," Howe said. "There were no sure wins anywhere. We'd go into New York, when they were having a tough time, and they'd see the Red Wings and come to life. We'd be thinking, 'Oh, it's the last-place Rangers.' We'd be flat as a pancake and wind up on the short end.
"Then, there would be times when someone would get hit during a game, wouldn't like it, wouldn't get a chance to retaliate on the ice, so they'd hit the guy on the train. There were plenty of fights on the trains. You could make a movie of that era."
Milt Schmidt was the NHL's biggest star when he went off to war in 1942 and Howe was a rookie the year after Schmidt returned and led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final. Schmidt was tall and strong like Howe and combined determination with strength and speed. He taught the Detroit rookie an early lesson in sportsmanship and competitiveness.
"Milt was such a competitor," Howe said. "He complimented me one night when I scored a goal that beat them. He respected people. We all had long memories and we knew they would get it back one day. They got it back within a week, that Kraut Line of Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart.
"Another time, I scored and my old friend, Harry Watson, hit me on the shins and said nice shot."
The sportsmanship even extended off the ice, says Howe.
"I had cartilage removed in a Toronto hospital one time and there was a Maple Leafs player there at the same time. We didn't know each other before that but we talked hockey the whole time we were there.
"The biggest change in the game, as far as players are concerned, is that you don't know the guys you are playing against," Howe said. "I watch a lot and I can't name them all."
Howe retired in 1971 due to chronic wrist problems but was talked into playing for the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association in 1973.
That gave him a chance to play on a team with his sons, Marty and Mark. He retired again in 1980 and still lives in the Detroit area. He watched with sadness as the franchise fell on hard times in the 1970s and early 1980s but has thrilled at the revival under the direction of owners Mike and Marian Ilitch and general managers Jim Devellano and Ken Holland.
I thought Montreal was closest to Detroit for fan passion in my day. I hit Rocket Richard hard one night and they booed all through the game. Then, when I got off the ice, there were a thousand fans clapping for me and waiting for autographs. - Gordie Howe
"I spent the first 25 years of my career playing in Detroit," Howe said. "That's where it all started for me, with Detroit's great fans. I thought Montreal was closest to Detroit for fan passion in my day. I hit Rocket Richard hard one night and they booed all through the game. Then, when I got off the ice, there were a thousand fans clapping for me and waiting for autographs.
"My teammates asked me if I wanted them to stay back and protect me and I said, 'What for?'" Howe said. "I told them to go ahead and get on the bus. The fans wouldn't be asking for my autograph if I wasn't popular.
"When the game is on, the other teams' fans rooted against us. But after the game, someone is always standing in the cold waiting for an autograph and I was glad they asked.
"Lindsay was always thinking up good business ideas. He paid a photographer 15 cents a card to take our pictures and put them on small trading cards. I'd get 500, sign them and hand them to the kids."
Author: John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer