Goodnight, Mr. Hockey

I only saw him play live once in my life. It was 1997 and ESPN was showing a live shot of the Detroit Vipers, a now-defunct minor-league hockey team. Gordie Howe skated out during an overly dramatized set of introductions. He took the ice to play but one shift, so he could claim that he had played professional hockey in six decades.

You couldn’t even call it a moment, as his ice time came to about 47 seconds, but it was something that hockey purists decried as a stunt, a farce and a smudge of tarnish on the legacy of the man. It was a circus act, like having a cab give an obese Babe Ruth to first base, people of this ilk bemoaned. One pundit noted that “Of all the greatness of Gordie, that one passed the line.”

That’s only true if you didn’t understand him.

The man known affectionately as “Mr. Hockey,” died today at the age of 88. That he made it to this ripe old age is a shocker to anyone who saw him play. He was a rough, rugged player who had no compunction about introducing your head to the boards. His nickname during his playing days was “Elbows,” and for good reason.

Dick Schaap noted that during Howe’s era, the great goal scorers were not giant men and they needed protection from the goons of the league.

Except for Gordie. He took care of himself.

Some called him dirty, including famously his own son, who played with him on the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. Howe would bristle at that, noting instead that he had a sense of fairness and justice on the ice: If you act up, you get something coming your way.

A memorable moment had him, at the age of 46, trying to get an opposing player to leave his son alone. When the man wouldn’t relent, Howe reached down, stuck his fingers in the guy’s nostrils and physically dragged him off the ice.

He played until he was 52 in the NHL, finishing his 26-year career with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80. There are people who need a Lark 7 mini-scooter to shop at Walmart at that age. He scored 41 points in that season.

As much as Canadians held The Rocket (Maurice Richard) in high regard from that era, making him the Original Six’s standard bearer of Canada’s hockey greatness, Howe became a cultural touchstone long after he played his last game.

Cameron wears a beat-up Howe jersey in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Howe is a “hidden character” in the “Open Ice” 2 on 2 video game.

His biography “And Howe!” was hawked over and over again on QVC.

Much of the marketing appeal and financial gains he made in his life were due to his wife, Colleen, a hard-charging woman with a sharp business acumen. She used to say that Gordie took care of business on the ice while she took care of business off the ice.

To say they were polar opposites would be an understatement. For all of his bone-crushing checks and “Gordie Howe Hat Tricks” (a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game), he was bashful and almost painfully shy. His own father called him awkward and backwards and wondered if his son would ever amount to anything.

In 1957, the players threatened to strike unless the league recognized the players’ right to unionize. When League God Clarence Campbell came into the Red Wings’ locker room and demanded the players give this up, Howe’s teammate Ted Lindsay told everyone in there who wanted to be in the union to stand up.

They all did.

Except for Howe.

He didn’t want to rock the boat. He didn’t want to make waves. He didn’t feel comfortable asking for things like money or improvements or whatever. It wasn’t who he was.

The players lost the opportunity to unionize for almost a decade.

Lindsay was traded as a rabble-rouser.

Howe pressed on.

When the team decided in 1971 that it was time for him to stop scoring goals and move on, they “retired” him and put him into a front-office job. Howe often referred to this as “the mushroom treatment” because: “They keep me in the dark and every so often the open up the door and shovel some manure on me.”

When his sons were drafted by the WHA, Howe came back to play at age 45. The purists howled, as he was already in the NHL hall of fame and thought it was nothing but a cheap stunt. His own sons were worried, with Marty Howe once noting that he came home every day during the first week with every shade of bruise on his body that anyone could imagine.

He was old. He was out of shape. What the hell was he doing out there?

All he did that year was make the team, score at least 100 points and help lead his team to the first of consecutive league championships. In 1974, he also played for Team Canada against a Russian squad that most considered the best in the world.

When he finally did retire (again) in 1980, no one was sure he was done. Friends often said he would keep his equipment in the trunk of the car in case a team he was scouting asked him out on the ice. His career was over, but his love for hockey never truly was.

People will talk at length today about his goal-scoring acumen and his borderline brutal play. Old-timers will recall that it’s a miracle he made it to this age, as he should have died in 1950 when he broke his skull during the NHL finals. Fans will talk about how there will never again be a player like him, even though Wayne Gretzky has nudged past him on so many lists of records.

The thing I will always cherish about Howe was his sense of self. Legendary Detroit media figure Dave Diles once noted that most people in life will think to themselves that maybe they should go do something else or be something else. Gordie, however, never wanted to be anything more than a hockey player.

He wasn’t going to be an agent of social change like another great athlete we lost this year, Muhammad Ali. Nor was he going to be a coach and then a GM and then an owner. He didn’t want to do a different job or sell all sorts of Gordie Howe-endorsed products. (Whatever he did in this regard was at the prodding of Colleen, who often coaxed him out of his shell for his own good.)

Instead, he wanted to be on the ice, with a stick, knocking the shit out of someone before he scored on that guy’s goalie.

Today, we have so many demands for social and financial ladder climbing. We are supposed to take one job and become decent enough at it so we can get a better one and then go somewhere else for more money and do something else better than that. As Springsteen’s line went, “Poor man wanna be rich. Rich man wanna be king. King ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.”

And dammit, you better be happy when you get there.

Instead, Gordie Howe is an inspiration to anyone who just wants to be happy doing something that makes him or her happy.

For years, I climbed and climbed and climbed, like so many of my peers. I also watched my students climb over each other to get better internships and jobs at bigger and better places, all the while they were miserable.

Gordie Howe now reminds me that there is a joy in being good at something and persisting in it until you can’t anymore, whether its on the grandest stage or at the smallest venue.

I hope for his sake the path to Heaven is a frozen river and the Pearly Gates are the height of your average dasher.

Buckle up your chinstraps, boys.

Mr. Hockey is on his way.