Looking back at four people I have crossed a memorable past with: Gordie Howe, Jimmy Piersall, Wayne Gretzky and Reggie Fleming. Two tried to kill me and two became lifetime idols of mine.
Gordie Howe (Houston Aeros) came to Saginaw to help raise money for the Saginaw Bay Ice Arena In the month of February 1975. It was blistering cold out when we arrived at the Banquet Hall. Two of us got out of our cars at the same time. With the wind blowing the snow sideways, Gordie hurried to get inside but slipped on black ice and fell on his back.
I was the only one around. I reached out, grabbed is huge hand and pulled him up. Gordie paused for a second, grabbed my shoulder, reflected for a second and said: “If you tell one single person...” Then on the way in he asked if I knew Mark Wesley. I asked why? “That man wanted to know why I would want to raise money for an ice arena and I thought about punching him in the nose,” he replied.
My wife Paulette & I met Gordie many times later and he never forgot the fall. My son Paul’s middle name is Gordon. Howe is called Mr. Hockey for a reason: fierce, talented, and brutal on the ice, yet /kind, decent, honest, generous, & caring off the ice.
Denny Mclean (Drafted by the N.Y. Islanders # 83 & the Calgary Cowboys # 7 in 1975) managed the Bay Ice Arena for a year in the ‘80s and told me a Howe story. In a WHA game during a faceoff Gordie carved 8 stitches into Denny’s lip (signaling to give him space the next time they met). Denny said stay here I will be back in 30 minutes. He drove home and came back with a box carrying the stitches Gordie gave him, which he saved all his life.
The first time Phil Esposito faced Gordie his teammate said: “Watch that old bastard”. They went into the corner, Howe elbowed him in the mouth for 6 stitches. Phil then swung his stick & went to the box alone.
I only saw Gordie fight once at Olympia Stadium. It was 2/28/1965 against Noel Picard (age 26) and Howe was 37. The brawl started after Howe stepped on his own glove and then fell down (the crowd went silent) but he got up & dragged the rookie into the corner and beat the hell out of him.
The Wings defeated Montreal 5-1 on a hat trick by Norm Ullman & Roger Crozier stopped 33 of 34 shots. The first time Stan Mikita played against Gordie Howe and the Red Wings he flattened him a then took a seat on the bench. All the Hawks moved far away from Stan. He said “Whats up? “Did you know that was Gordie Howe?”
Stan replied: “That old man-who cares?” Two weeks later Stan and Gordie went into a corner. Five minutes later Stan woke up on the bench. Bobby Hull leaned over and said: “What do you think of the old man now?”
No one wanted a piece of Howe in a fight after seeing what he did to Ranger tough guy Lou Fontinato (2/1/1959). He destroyed him. The results of Lou’s face was put in Life Magazine. Gordie broke his nose, dislocated his jaw, and destroyed his ego. Lou passed away at age 84.
Howe did not get into a lot of fights later in his career when he figured it out that he was more important on the ice instead of the penalty box. Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky both said there is only one #1 in hockey, and that’s Gordie Howe.
Jimmy Piersall was blessed with speed to play baseball. His father was driven to see his son become a Boston Red Sox and his mom was often in manic depression. All together it created one zany ball player. Jimmy drove himself into a mental hospital and was suspended numerous times for erratic behavior.
But even with all this going on he played 17 years of Major League baseball (1,734 games, hit .272, hit 104 HRS, 591 RBI’S and had a .990 FA) He once had 6 straight hits in a game, owned a ball club, married three women, fathered nine kids with his first wife, and became a famous broadcaster with Texas, the White Sox, and teamed up with Harry Caray.
He was invited to the White House twice, was a two -time All-Star, won two Gold Gloves, & is in the Boston Red Sox H.O.F. Casey Stengel said Jimmy was the best fielder he ever seen - better than Joe D. But he also said as a Mets manager “I had to play him he a cage”.
With the Mets Jimmy once ran backwards around the bases after hitting his 100th home run. I had the misfortune to meet Jimmy (8/3/1961 when I was 17 & Jimmy was 32 after his team took a 6-1 beating from the Detroit Tigers on a Frank Lary seven hitter and a three hit night by Jake Wood.
During the game some Tiger fans were relentless - throwing things at Piersall and calling him crazy. So here I was waiting for him to sign a baseball for me after the game. “Not a good time”. As the only person waiting, I said Jimmy would sign a ball for me, he said, “I don’t sign anything for people in this fucking town”.
I replied: “That’s OK, you’re nuts anyway”.
Wrong move. He spun on a dime, zipped over and grabbed me by the throat, lifted me off my feet, while gasping for air, a policeman and the Indians press lady pulled him off before he could kill me. As they pulled him away backwards, dragging his feet, his face was beet red and he was foaming at the mouth.
Even as a teenager I realized this was a troubled man. I told him, “I’m sorry Jimmy.” I wrote him a letter years later to apologize for my behavior. Our son Paul had issues and I feel I now know a little about the pain he lived with. People need compassion and understanding for those with depression.
Next up, my time with N.H.L. bad ass Reg Fleming. He played over 20 years, 868 N.H.L. & W.H.A. games, 133 Goals, 189 assists, 322 points, and 1612 Penalty Minutes with another 106 in the playoffs. (Once he had 37 Penalty Minutes in one game. No big deal - I once had 87 Penalty Minutes in one game against Larry’s Lounge in the Men’s Class A league at the Civic Center and was kicked out for 2 weeks).
Reg won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 1961 and set up Bobby Hull for his 50th goal in a game. Reg had a notorious reputation as a tough customer (or dirty-take your pick) and intense competitor. He also picked up 20 plus concussions along the way, I’ve had 3 myself from hockey.
Reg played for the Shawinigan Falls Cataracts in 1957-58 where he scored 6 goals and had 227 minutes in the box. I first crossed paths with this mad man in 1964 as a member of the Chicago Black Hawks. In the old Olympia Stadium, the players went from the ice to the locker room, crossing a hallway to the locker room with wood guard rails to keep them away from the fans.
One night in 1964, I took exception to his dirty play and verbally harassed Mr. Tough Guy at the end of each period. In the games end, he had enough of me & spit in my face (directly between my eyes) I promised at that very moment I would get back at him sometime in my life.
My chance came in 1965 when he suited up for the N.Y. Rangers. My harassment hit a new level that evening in the Old Red Barn. For 3 periods I blistered him with some of my best stuff. At the end of the game, Reggie had all he could take & raised his stick to thump me over the head. I was ready, I smacked him with a tightly rolled up program and knocked him back. Down went the rail and off we both went down the hallway to Grand River Avenue.
I made it to the door and into the winter night; but what hell - he’s still coming with skates on until he finally gave up, THANK GOD. Now to move forward 10 years, Reg came out of retirement and left his beer truck driving job to play for the Saginaw Gears in 1975.
Of course, we see each other coming & going to practice at the Civic Center. We passed each other, stopped, looked back and we both said, “I don’t think so”. When the bright lights of hockey faded, Reg then moved on, as his life didn’t go too well. From all the fights and body checks he developed (C.T.E) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (Brain Damage) that eventually killed him at age 73. (He is the very first N.H.L. player to die from this).
His last five years were spent in a hospital after a stroke. His son Chris filmed his memories, during that period of time, which was very sad. Nine other N.H.L. players, have died from this issue (315 cases in the N.F.L. with 24 deaths), including the Red Wings Bob Probert.
On to the great one: Wayne Gretzky. He holds 61 N.H.L. records. Played 1487 N.H.L. games: 894 G, 1963 A, 2857 P, & 260 more playoff points. Paulette and I met Wayne (age 19) at the 1980 N.H.L. All-Star Game in Detroit. It was his first All-Star game and Gordie Howe’s (then age 51) last. Paulette and I were part of a small group who knew who he was. He was polite and kind.
Back in the day I was a full blown collector of game used hockey memorabilia. Before Wayne got to the All-Star game, I already had his W.H.A. Indianapolis Racers game jerseys: 3 games in one & 5 in the other. I traded away $300.00 and 3 W.H.A. jerseys for them. I later sold each Gretzky W.H.A. jersey: One for $15,000.00 and one for 3 complete sets of baseball cards (All near mint: Years 1954,1955,1956). Later I sold those for $45,0000 (Today’s value: $ 250,000.00). I also got his game used road jersey when the Edmonton Ollers played their first game in Olympia Stadium (11/7/1979: Wings 5 Oilers 3-Wayne got a goal & an assist).
I got the jersey from his trainer Kelly Pruden after the game. At that time Kelly was making $15,000.00 a year. He gave me his game jersey in a paper bag at games end for $500.00. That was one beautiful jersey. I later found a photo of it on the front of the 1980-81 Oilers Press Guide and sold that jersey for $15,000.00. Bad move, his blue home jersey from the 1979-80 season sold last year for $478,800.00.
When Wayne Gretzky found out I had his Indy W.H.A. jerseys, he had Kelly Pruden call to hear what I wanted, so I gave them about 8 items I would except in trade. Wayne said forget it. One year passed and they called again. This time I said: “I would let one go for the new Jaguar Wayne just bought and then hung up. To this day I still feel bad about being so ungracious.
Wayne was introduced to actress Janet Jones by Alan Thicke at a Laker basketball game. They were married one year later (7/16/1988). They have 3 sons & 2 daughters. Paulina became a famous model and married golfer Dustin Johnson. Wayne’s son Trevor played pro baseball (Drafted by the Cubs) for 7 teams & 231 games before acting in the movies.
Wayne owns a Winery & Distillery near Niagara on the Lake. I have been there - it is beautiful. We have seen Alan Thicke at three All-Star games. My favorite story of his.” Gordie Howe is from Saskatchewan. That place is so flat that when your dog runs away you can watch him go for two days. Alan passed at age 69 on December 13,2016.
When Gordie went to Saskatchewan (2-7-2015) to raise money for Alzheimer’s he came along with Bobby Dennis, Brett Hull, Mark Marty, Murray Howe, and Wayne Gretzky. Wayne was a huge Howe fan as a kid. He said his favorite Christmas gift from his Dad was a Red Wing Howe jersey. That was great T.V. that night with everyone talking about Gordie’s career. I was touched by Murray Howe rubbing his Dad’s back thoughout the show.
When Gordie died (6-10-2016) I went to the honoring of him at the Joe Louis Arena. I met Murray and told him about his kindness for his Dad during that fund raiser. I said the caring and love you showed your dad on T.V. was the result of the love he showed you boys in life.
Dr. Murray Howe wrote a book “Nine Lessons I Learned from my Father.” This is one great book.
16th November, 2023