I am sitting here trying to process the death of my hero, Gordie Howe. I don’t use the term “hero” lightly, especially when it comes to sport figures. Howe is the lone exception to this rule, and I make no apology for naming him such. He meant so much more to me than his role as a right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, and I am just now coming to grips with all his life meant to me.
I was born in Detroit in 1961, and was raised there until my dad moved us out to Southfield in 1965. I have known Gordie Howe’s name from the moment I was born, and there has never been another man’s name that has so consistently earned my respect. This was surely due in part to the fact that my father was a big hockey fan, and was thoroughly impressed with the strength, skill, and power that was packaged in the Wings number nine. I had several uncles that never held back in their praise for Howe, and these were men who weren’t easily given to compliments. My Uncle Denny was an old school guy, tough as they come. All of his sons played hockey, and he would often speak in profanity laced reverence about the greatness of Gordie Howe. So, all of my male authorities spoke highly of Howe. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever heard even one negative comment about him in my entire life. As I reflect on this, it is truly remarkable, and unique.
The local sportscasters would always pick out the flaws and shortcomings of the Lions, Tigers, Pistons or other Red Wings. But Howe always seemed to get a pass. This might be due to the fact that they were terrified to face him if they were critical, but I think they were genuinely in awe of this man, whose character and humility off the ice matched, and even surpassed his achievements on the ice.
I met Gordie Howe twice, when I was in my early teens. Both of these times were at the Olympia, and happened after a game. He had retired, but was still working in the front office for the Norris family, and would always be hanging around the rink. This was during the interim between his first (!)NHL retirement and his beginning career with the WHA’s Houston Aeros. He was standing in a hall on each occasion, having a conversation with some other Olympia person. He was talking, and signing autographs to an ever moving line of fans. I had heard later that he never left an autograph line early, and always signed every last one. I handed my program to him, and he signed it while still talking with his colleague. I was too shy to say anything, but he gave me a wink, and it meant everything to me. I had mattered to him, the biggest, strongest, most respected man in my world. And it happened again a year later. Same story. These autographs were taped ceremoniously on the wall of the room I shared with my brother, and we both prized these above anything else in our home. Of all my life’s disappointments, misplacing those autographs ranks at the top.
We lived less than a mile away from Gordie Howe’s home in Lathrup Village. We somehow learned where he lived, and would “get lost” on our way back home from church at St. Bede’s, just so we could have a chance at a Gordie sighting. We were not disappointed. We saw him several times out in the yard. I remember passing his house one time and seeing him without a shirt on. The guy was just all muscle and very intimidating. To realize that he could beat the snot out of anybody, and yet was so kind to children and anyone else had a deep impact on me. I have since heard that true power is best expressed as “strength contained”, and is well exemplified in a Saint Bernard. Gentle of nature, but fully capable of outmatching any opponent in size, speed, ferocity and strength. That was Howe, but in human form. Just ask Lou Fontinato, the New York Ranger who sought to establish his reputation as the NHL’s toughest player at the expense of Howe. Bad idea. Real bad. The results were educational and frightening. Lou went after Howe behind the net on a goalmouth scramble. Howe ducked a sucker punch, seized Fontinato in a death grip and proceeded to pound his face hard, fast, and continuously. So much so, that a teammate who was on the ice said that it sounded like someone chopping wood. The victim’s nose was shifted halfway toward his ear, and he looked like he had met the business end of a jack hammer. Which he had. Thus humbled, his tough guy persona was left in tatters. Few followed Fontinato’s Folly.
As I fast forward to my later teen years, when I had a new interest in girls, rock & roll and trendy herbal amusements, there was one consistent theme in my life, and that was respect for Gordie Howe. I recall several occasions when my decidedly non-jock accomplices were talking about whatever we would discuss between bong hits, and the subject somehow turned to Howe. I would wax eloquently about his skills, toughness, and kindness, and there would be a silent nodding of the heads and appreciative cursing in respectful assent. There was no other athlete, politician, business leader or even Golden Retriever that could ever bring so many diverse people together in clear agreement. Such was the powerful influence that Gordie Howe had on my life.
So now, I must face life without Gordie Howe in it, and I unexpectedly feel a cold draft behind me, as there is a massive, gaping hole left by this one man who meant so much to me, but even more so to the entire Detroit community. He was that rarest of treasure, the warrior poet, who was completely vicious and uncompromising, but kind and gentle off the battlefield. And we all saw him for who he was. This was also a gift.
Perhaps my opinion of Howe is shaped by my own childhood, as my own father was largely absent as I was growing up. A young man needs a male role model, somebody he can look up to, and believe that virtue and strength are within his own reach, if he will but make the choice and pay the price. I now, for the first time, realize that Gordie was that man in my life. Though he wasn’t my own father, uncle or teacher, he had an influence on me that was both profound and positive. And I hold on to a strange and unexpected hope that someday I will see him again. And when I do, he will wink and say, “Hell of a great job you did out there Tommy”.
Thanks for everything, Gordie.