By Richard Curry
The man is a total contradiction: on the ice he could be vicious & cruel, but off it he was kind, thoughtful, humble, and a gentleman beyond reproach. In my lifetime I have had the privilege to meet him many times. As a kid I would listen to Detroit Red Wing hockey games on the radio late into the night. This was an era when Red Wing hockey was King (4 Stanley Cups/7 Straight League Championships).
Sport is a game of numbers and Mr. HOCKEY had them all. Won the Art Ross Trophy 6 Times, Hart Trophy 6 times, 23 Time All-Star, & 4 time Stanley Cup winner. His NHL/WHA totals: 2186 games, 975 Goals (Wayne Gretzky totaled 940), 1383 assists, 2,358 Points, & 2084 P.M. In 3 years in the WHA he raked up 301 points (during his ages from 46 to 49). Gordie skated with his own kids for over 7 years in professional hockey. No one, I mean no one has ever done that.
Mother Katherine brought him to birth on her own, nearly killed her. It was March 31st, 1928 on the frozen plains of Floral, Saskatchewan. Alan Thicke said Saskatchewan was so flat, if your dog ran away, you could sit on your rocking chair and watch him go for two days. The family was dirt poor, but it didn’t slow Mom & Dad much as they had 9 kids (Gordie was #6). Gordie started skating when a neighbor gave Mom skates for the boy. He skated day and night, which might explain failing the 3r grade. Gordie practiced his distinctive autograph so when he became a hockey star it would be awesome (and it was!)
Howe’s 1st tryout was with the N.Y. Rangers at age 15, but he was embarrassed by his teammates when couldn’t figure out his equipment. Good news for the Detroit Red Wings because he later figured out everything for the next 35 years.
Gordie’s first team was the Omaha Knights (made $2,200 for the season). In his first season with the Wings he signed for $5,000 and team jacket. Howe’s dad Abe was a character - when he was in his mid-80’s a reporter asked him when he lost interest in woman; Dad replied, “I’m not that old yet”.
At Gordie’s funeral the great Scotty Bowman said, “He combined size, strength, speed, stick-handling skill and toughness in a way no one ever had. He was implacable. Thus the simple honorific of “Mr. Hockey.” Wayne Gretzky added “He was a special guy, never asked for anything from anybody.” He would do anything for anyone.” “Gordie was the best hockey player ever, but more importantly, he was the nicest man I ever met.” Bobby Orr,” I’m not talking about being one of the greatest hockey players ever.” “I’m talking about being the greatest player ever. Period”. Howe in the NHL was in the top 5 in scoring for 20 straight years (UNREAL).
A Saginaw, Michigan moment: Gordie Howe (Age 46) came to town in early January when was he member of the Houston Aeros (They had a game with the Michigan Stags at Cobo the next night). He was here to help raise money for youth hockey (at Bay Ice Arena). We pulled into the ice covered parking lot together. It was bitter cold with a hollowing wind. In a rush Howe slipped, flew up, and landed flat out on his back. I reached out and pulled on his big hand to help get him up. Gordie paused, gathered his thoughts, held my shoulder, pointed a finger at me and said, “If you tell one single person….”
I later met him 3 more times & he never forgot the moment or my name. Walking in he said “Do know a Mark Wesley?” I said he is with TV5”. Gordie said, “He asked me why I would bother to come here and raise money for youth hockey.” “I wanted to hit him upside the head.” (YOU GOTTA LOVE THE MAN).
I found out about Gordie’s passing on the radio. Ted Lindsay (age 90) followed with his thoughts on his long time teammate. Ted: “For years, even after he became a full- fledged star Gordie was in fear of losing his job. We trained in Sault Saint Marie in September every season. For that two weeks in practice the left wingers trying to make the lineup went through hell because Howe wanted to make the team. Gordie did not know how good he was. I have never met a humbler man.” There never was one better before him, never when he played, & there will never be one better…. ever.”
Ted, Gordie, Red Kelly, Marty Pavelich lived two blocks from Olympia in widow Ma Shaw’s boarding house for years during the Wings hay days. One night the boys went bowling together & Gordie met Colleen Joffa (At the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley-she was 17). It was love at first site. She didn’t have a clue who he was. They married, had four kids (9 grandchildren, & 5 great grandchildren) & helped start Ice Rinks all over the city of Detroit. Colleen & Gordie were married for 56 years. She died at 76 from Picks Disease.
I went to the Howe funeral at the Joe with my daughter Nicole & my memories of this great man came flooding back to me. I went to Gordie’s 25th Anniversary party with my wife and son Patrick. My son walked in with a game used Howe stick, Gordie looks over, picks him up off his feet and carries him over behind a door and says, “You’re getting two minutes for stealing my stick.” We would wait after games in Olympia and stand and talk to the likes of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
This brings to mine a Hull/Mikita story. In Stan’s first ever game against the Red Wings he blindsided Howe. Returning to the bench he said, “That old man ain’t nothin.” Weeks later Stan went into the corner with Gordie, he woke up minutes later looking up at the ceiling. Bobby Hull lend over and said, “What do you think of the old man now?”
Paulette and I once walked to Gordie’s car with him. He was wearing a fedora hat and knee length over coat in mid- winter. He found the time to talk to us all the way. The man was kind and always gracious off the ice. On the ice a different story. I talked to Howe (At an All-Star Game in Washington in 1982-he was 54) setting on a coach alone & asked him about playing against the Russian National team for the WHA All-Stars (In Moscow) in 1974 (He was 46 & was 4th in scoring for 7 games). His son Mark was cut by a Russian player. Two shifts later Gordie had the puck, threw it away in the corner to that very same player. Howe followed, hit him with a stick and broke the player’s arm.
I once asked Gordie about his greatest regret in hockey. It was hands down the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals (Game 6). I know the feeling I was setting in the 2nd row with my wife in the 3rd tier. In that game Pit Martin, Paul Henderson (1972 Summit Series MVP), and Gordie (Had 9 Goals in this Playoff year) scored. But the game went to Over time. Eddie Joyal went down the ice and passed the puck to Bill Gadsby, who shot at the upper corner, but Johnny Bower’s top stick tipped it away.
Toronto went the other way, Bobby Baun (returning with a broken ankle) stepped on the ice, shot the puck, hits Gadsby in the butt & slipped past Terry Sawchuck for a 4-3 win. I watched as the Stanley Cup was pushed back down the hall way to be sent to Toronto for the final game, lost by the Wings 4-0, PAINFUL. Back to the good times. Paulette and I were in Olympia the night Howe broke Rocket Richard’s all-time goal scoring record (Goal 545). It was 11/11/1963, Gordie was 35. He beat Charlie Hodge with a set- up from Billy McNeil (Played 20 Pro Years-Died from Cancer at 71-his wife passed from Polio at a young age. Jack Adams (Wings G.M.) would not let him go home to visit her when she was sick - Gordie & Billy never forgave Jack..
Hockey at Olympia in the 50’s, 60’s, & 70’s was very volatile & I was part of it. In 1965 I was 22 years old. I taunted Reggie Fleming (N.Y. Rangers - 749 games, 108 goals - 468 P.M. - NHL BAD ASS) while he was walking back and forth from the ice to the locker room.
At the game’s conclusion I again gave him a few more choice words - that did it. Reg raised his stick to hit me over the head, I instinctively hit him on the side of his face with a rolled up program. Down went the wooden guard rail, as I looked back he was coming full bore after me. I raced to the double doors, went thru both sets & out into the snow blowing, freezing weather, as I looked back, Reg was still coming on strong, after a half a block he gave up - THANK GOD.
A myth I found o line. Gordie Howe was credited with the Gordie Howe Hat Trick-A goal, an assist, and a fight. In his career he only had two of these. Also, he never recorded a NHL hat trick. Jaromir Jagr & Alex Ovechkin had 15 each.
Playing hockey carries with it a lot of pain: For Gordie - torn knee cartilage, broken wrist, dislocated shoulder, several concussions, numerous broken bones & toes, and 300 plus stitches. He also dished out a lot of pain.
Mark tells a story. “While driving to the rink for a game Gordie told a young Mark Howe, “Watch # 3 out there tonight. That was Keith Magnuson of the Black Hawks (born in Saskatoon). In the game Howe went behind the net with him, elbowed Keith in the face, knock him out, and on the way down, grabbed him by the shoulder pads and smashed his face off his raised knee. No more problems with Keith after that. Keith played in 589 games and collected 1,442 P.M. Sadly he died in a car accident years later while driving with Rob Ramage. The Black Hawks retired his # 3 in Chicago. Once in a WHA game a brute had Mark down on the ice in a fight, Gordie leaned down and said “Get off my son’ He said “F**k You”, Gordie then stuck two fingers up his hose and lifted him to his feet & off the ice (REAL).
On the other side of the coin Gordie off the ice would shovel his drive way or rake leaves then shovel & rake the neighbors or clean his windows off at a gas station then do the car next to him. In Houston a man stole a lady’s purse and Gordie chased him 3 blocks, punched him in the face and gave the purse back to the stunned lady.
Howe took care of himself on the ice, no one fought his battles. I was there in Olympia when Gordie was challenged by Noel Picard, a big rookie (6’1”-210 Pounds-Age 26) live today at 77 years old, 335 games-616 P.M. from Montreal (It was 2/28/1965-Gordie was 37 years old).
When the fight started Howe stepped on his Glove and fell backwards to the ice. The crowd went into complete silence out of respect. Gordie got up, the refs parted, he skated the young defenseman to the corner where Gordie him hit with two powerful rights-fight over (& the crowd goes wild).
The honoring of Gordie was attended by: Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Al Kaline, Bobby Orr, Ted Lindsay, Mike Babcock, Dylan Larkin, and many more. Gordie’s eulogy contained some wit and wisdom of your beloved Michigan hero.
HOWE: “I was so bad as a child, Jesus had to save me twice. I play religious hockey, it’s better to give then receive.” It’s God and the people around you that got you where you are today.”
ON CHARACTER: “Good manners cost nothing.’ ‘I speak two languages: English and Profanity.”
FAME: “Don’t read your own press clippings. You’ll start to believe them.”
PAYBACKS: “You don’t need gloves, just stitch me up. And in fact, don’t go very far because the guy who did this will be coming in real soon.”
At the funeral inside the Joe I met Gordie’s sister, held the hand of one of his granddaughters at the time she looked over at the casket and said “That’s PeePaw.” Talked to Murray Howe, the non- hockey playing son and Doctor. I told Murray the parking lot story. I told him: “Thank you for giving Gordie another year & a half of life (By taking him to Mexico for stem cell surgery).
I told him I was moved when I watched the Gordie Howe tribute (In Saskatchewan to raise money for Alzheimer’s) (Attended by: Bobby, Dennis, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Murray/Mark/& Marty Howe). Especially when he rubbed his Dad’s back while those there paid his Dad tribute.” “I said that’s the love Gordie instilled in you” I named my first son Paul Gordon Curry because of my life long respect for this wonderful man. It could have not been a better choice.
Don’t feel sad in his passing, he lived a wonderful life and touched millions with his humility & kindness. His son Murray said it best “Dad never looked down on those who looked up to him.”
In conclusion, Murray, I humbly bow to you Dad, for your magnificent example for all of us. We will do our best to follow your lead until we meet again. Thank You.
9th February, 2024