I never saw Gordie Howe play. I never heard that many stories about him to be honest. That’s not to say I don’t know him. I grew up playing hockey in Michigan. The Howe family influence is everywhere. Because of that, you learn the story of Gordie through osmosis.
He was physical, he could score, he knew how to get in a cheap shot when he had too, he played into his 50s, he won a handful of Stanley Cups, he played on The Production Line. It’s all history to me. I can look at the black-and-white and grainy tape of the young man with his hair parted and know that’s Gordie Howe, but that’s not the Gordie I know.
When I was growing up, Howe already had his flock of pure white hair. Outside of television pieces, the only interactions I had with him was a hockey training video where he talked about hanging on to your dreams, this SportsCenter commercial, one time when he was signing autographs at an ice arena I was playing a tournament at* and the one shift he played for the Vipers when I was seven and he was almost 70.
That distance between me and Gordie’s glory days enhanced the legend. With his tough reputation and hockey ability you could tell me almost anything about Gordie’s on-ice behavior and I would believe it. He fractured his skull then came back the next year to score 86 points and win the scoring title? OK. He returned after eight years of NHL retirement to play in all 80 games for the Hartford Whalers at age 51? If you say so. He once clocked someone in the face with a punch so hard that he broke his hand, then scored a goal with the injury on the same shift? Seems right.
(By the way, only the last one was made up.)
To me (and I assume many of those who don’t know him and didn’t see him play regularly) Howe is less of a human and more of a folk hero. So when I first heard he had a stroke, I was sad because I intrinsically feel sad when you hear bad news, but it didn’t really register.