SAN JOSE -- Gordie Howe was one of the first people to wear a San Jose Sharks sweater.
It was one day in an epic life, but it's important to remember now. Howe died Friday at age 88 during the Stanley Cup Final between the Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
That the NHL is where it is today, with its marquee event in northern California and western Pennsylvania, with 30 teams across North America and the Board of Governors considering expansion, owes a lot to "Mr. Hockey."
Howe's fame transcended the sport. During his 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, he set himself apart to such a degree that he became a Ruthian figure, well known in popular culture throughout North America and in other parts of the world.
When he joined the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association to play with his sons Mark and Marty, Howe brought attention to hockey in a new place. He later played for the New England Whalers of the WHA, who became the Hartford Whalers when the NHL merged with the WHA and added four of its teams. He continued to make an active effort to grow the game for the rest of his life.
Howe was the idol of Wayne Gretzky, "The Great One," who became the face of the game and helped spread hockey to the Sunbelt after the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. The NHL continued to expand to new markets.
Which brings us to San Jose and February 1991.
The city had been granted an expansion franchise, and the Sharks already had announced their name after holding a name-the-team sweepstakes that drew suggestions from every Canadian province, every American state and some European countries. The Sharks had not unveiled their logo and sweater, however, and they wanted to do something special.
"The Bay Area had established teams in all the other major sports: the Giants, the A's, the Raiders, the 49ers, the Warriors," said Matt Levine, who was the Sharks vice president of business and marketing operations at the time and now runs his own sports consulting company. "We wanted to as quickly as possible get out of being viewed as, 'Oh, they're an expansion team. Give them a few years. They might start attracting our attention.' "
So they called Colleen Howe, "Mrs. Hockey," Gordie Howe's wife and business manager.
"If anybody could transcend the just-another-uniform introduction and make it into something extraordinary, it would be Gordie Howe," Levine said. "We embraced this as a metaphor for how we wanted to be viewed. We thought it would appeal to the local Bay Area and grab people's attention in a way that would give us credibility that we might not normally have going the traditional route."
The Howes accepted the invitation but did not accept an appearance fee, only expenses. The Sharks invited everyone who had suggested the name "Sharks" to a rink in a shopping mall in Cupertino, Calif., and about 300 of them showed up to sit on portable stands set up on the ice. A lot of media showed up too.
After a choreographed skating routine that showed off sample Sharks merchandise, out skated Howe and owner George Gund III wearing the new teal Sharks sweaters, featuring the logo of a shark biting a hockey stick. Howe did interviews. He signed autographs. Here was this new hockey team, and here was Mr. Hockey himself wearing its colors.
Howe returned to San Jose in January 1997, when the Sharks hosted their first big event: the NHL All-Star Game. He played the same role of ambassador.
"He always had that presence," said Dan Rusanowsky, the Sharks radio play-by-play voice from the beginning. "I was so amazed to see kids that weren't even born when he retired look at him with such abject veneration. They knew he was important."
Rusanowsky remembered an interaction with Howe that happened so many times in so many places. A kid approached the legend.
"Mr. Howe," the kid asked. "Can I have your autograph?"
"Well," Howe said, holding a Sharpie, "I've got to see if this pen works."
Howe opened the pen and flicked it playfully on the kid's hand, leaving a mark, lightening the mood.
"Yeah, it works."
Howe signed the autograph.
"It's that sort of little kind of charming moment that happened every day he was here, every minute he was here," Rusanowsky said. "And people in San Jose will always respect and remember that."
by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist