I never saw Gordie Howe play, but Mr. Hockey taught me how to truly appreciate the sport.
I was introduced to hockey in the early 1970s when NBC used to show games on television. Back then “Peter Puck” (who remembers him?) would give me the basics of the game during intermission and the announcers did the rest.
Because the Bruins were winning and featuring Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, they became my favorite team. The fast-paced action, the checking and the thrill of watching these players display extraordinary skills on skates made me a fan.
However, by 1975, NBC stopped showing hockey and the only way to keep up in Texas was through the newspaper and the rare, and I do mean rare, highlights on local television. Most of those clips were of the Stanley Cup playoffs and it usually entailed the winning team hoisting the Stanley Cup. I also collected hockey cards just to try and keep up with the players.
By 1980, hockey was becoming more frequent on television and cable periodically began showing the sport. The emergence of Wayne Gretzky also had something to do with the renewed popularity in the sport.
In 1986, I saw my first hockey game live when I visited my father in Washington, D.C., and got to see the Capitals against the Red Wings.
What a thrill. Everyone knows hockey is so much more exciting live.
As much as I enjoyed hockey, I never delved into the history of the game. I knew about the original six and names like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Jacques Plante, Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau through books I read about hockey and, of course, the one name that always came up was Gordie Howe.
Howe was always one of the first names brought up because he was the all-time leading scorer and his longevity was always mentioned. I also remember when he came back to play with his sons in his mid-40s and played through his early 50s. I always considered that to be somewhat of a novelty. I equated it to the boxer who never knows when to hang it up or like Willie Mays playing a couple of seasons too long.
Howe’s numbers were impressive but I chalked those up to him hanging around so long.
But I would find out how wrong I was about Howe when I had the chance to interview him in 1993.
My limited knowledge of him only fueled my desire to find out why he was tabbed “Mr. Hockey.”
So when a press release crossed my desk as the sports editor of the Wapakoneta Daily News that Howe was going to be in Dayton for an appearance and was doing a press conference I jumped at the chance.
Prior to going I started doing a little more research about Howe and I soon began to realize how much of an impact he really had on hockey. It wasn’t just all the goals he scored, it was the way he played. He was a gritty, hard-nosed player who backed it up with his play.
Anticipating a number of reporters showing up, I wrote down some questions and headed to Hara Arena.
When I got there, I found myself to be the only reporter to show up.
I have to admit I was a little nervous because I was thinking a host of reporters with more knowledgeable questions were going to be in attendance to talk to Howe. Instead it was just me.
I was soon introduced to Howe and my nerves were a jumble. But with a huge smile and a firm handshake, Howe quickly quelled those butterflies in my stomach.
Since it now became a one-on-one session, Howe asked me to sit down next to him. I think he sensed my anxiousness but he treated me like I was a friend.
Howe sat with me and he had someone cue up a video of his highlights. As the grainy black and white footage flashed across the screen of his tremendous talents, I soon began to appreciate what the NHL was like in the 1940s and 1950s. He was an imposing figure yet he was graceful and he could manipulate the hockey stick like it was an extension of his arm.
Throughout the video, Howe narrated portions of it and talked about certain players and clips of what was happening. He broke down how he fought this guy or how he scored on that guy. He spoke about the thrill of playing with the Red Wings and winning the Stanley Cup four times in an age that was dominated by Montreal.
You could see the gleam in his eyes as he reminisced about the “good ole days” of the NHL.
Howe downplayed his exploits and talked more about being a team player and all the great guys he played with and against. Throughout the interview he laughed and joked and I felt like I had just discovered a lost family member.
I don’t recall many of my questions I asked. I think that is because he did all the talking and I was more than happy to listen.
I do recall asking about playing at age 50 and playing with his sons. Howe emphasized that his love for hockey was only superseded by his love for family.
As we ended the 45 minute interview I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me. He laughed and said he appreciated me coming out. As I got up to leave, he told me to hold on, and he pulled out a promotional magazine, and in the corner he inscribed “Hello, Jose. Best Wishes. Gordie Howe.”
I came away from that interview realizing that he was not tabbed “Mr. Hockey” primarily for his exploits on the ice but for how he promoted the sport and the way he treated fans off the ice.
I came away with a new appreciation for the game and more importantly for the man who helped shape the league.
Thank you Mr. Hockey.
Reach Jose Nogueras at email@example.com or on twitter at @JoseNogueras1