Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Brush With Greatness

Yesterday, I had the privilege and the pleasure to sit down and chat with a hockey legend for the better part of an hour. I had arranged the meeting last week, and arrived a little while before the man himself. I was standing in the sunshine, talking with the owner of the inn where the player was staying, when a tangible frission of excitement lit his face. "Look behind you," he beamed, almost reverently. "Meet Mr.Hockey." I turned and nearly bumped into Gordie Howe, who had crept up behind me and stood there holding out a hand and grinning.

And I thought Habs fans were melodramatic.

My first impression was mixed: real pleasure to meet the man who was my dad's hockey hero, and shock to realize that Gordie Howe is an old man with an old man's frailties. His eyes still sparkle when he makes a joke...which he does often...but he tends to ramble in the way of people who have so much to tell that one story bleeds into another. He still talks about Maurice Richard in the present tense. His knowledge of technology consists of several labelled numbers pre-programmed into a cellphone. He calls Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen and Datsyuk "the nice foreign kids." Ha apologized for using the word "horseshit." And he seems angry and baffled when he talks about today's kids who demand instead of request his attention.

On that last, he told me a hilarious story about sitting at a charity event, signing pictures his handlers had handed out to people as they arrived. One kid approached the table where Howe was sitting, shoved the picture at him and said, "Sign it." Howe took the picture and wrote, "IT," then handed it back. The kid complained, so Howe took the picture back and said, "I'll just keep this then. This is what I gave to you when you came in, and I'm going to take it back." The kid's father wanted to know what had happened, so Howe told him his kid needed to learn some manners.

We talked about the game today; what he likes and what he doesn't. He loves the speed because it makes the game so much fun to watch. He doesn't like the two-line pass because he thinks it's removed players' ability to cleanly bodycheck the puck-carrier in the neutral zone and puts defenders so far behind the play that they're forced to use the stick to check instead. He believes a lot of the hits from behind are coming from players who are forced to chase the puck-carrier and cross-check or crush him into the boards instead of using body position to head him off. He says the biggest difference between the game now and then is "pay." And looks incredulous when he talks about 20-something kids being paid millions to play. The one thing he'd take away from the modern game? Laziness.

And, of course, we talked about the Habs. Rocket Richard is still able to make Gordie Howe smile, grimace and reflect, all within the space of a minute. He spoke of how Richard would become unstoppable when inspired by the home fans at the Forum. And of how the two of them would be enemies on the ice and golfing buddies off it. He described how Richard drove him to commit his worst on-ice infraction, when Richard taunted Howe's kids in the crowd behind the bench. Howe took a two-handed swing at Richard's head and was rewarded with a game misconduct. He still says it was worth it, golfing buddy or not. Anyway, he says, Elmer Lach was responsible for ninety percent of the trouble Richard got into, because he'd start it, then leave Rocket to clean up the mess. He discusses "Big John" Beliveau with a smile, remembering the time he'd been injured in a game and was in hospital in Detroit when the Canadiens came to town. Beliveau quietly came to the hospital before the evening's game to check on Howe and wish him well.

Howe says he's had three hundred stitches in his face, although you can hardly see any evidence of them. And he explains he only used his elbows because he "has no shoulders." When you see how his neck slopes sharply to his upper arms, you understand what he means.

He was about to tell an interesting story about how Steve Yzerman has "changed." And, by the look on his face, not for the better. But his grandson, who was in attendance, deftly changed the subject before Gordie could go further on that subject.

In the end, Howe graciously thanked me for taking the time to talk with him. Shaking his hand as I made my farewell, I realized how few of these founders of hockey's mystique remain with us. Gordie Howe is 81 years old, and his time is precious. I'm honoured I got to share some of it with him.


Dishonest John said...

These men were not without there own flaws, I've heard that Howe doesn't do much of anything without being paid, but they are our connection to a time in the NHL that today we have romanticized. Players like Howe and Belliveau have become bigger than life and there aren't many of them left anymore.

NailaJ said...

You amaze me.