Mr. Hockey: My Storyby Gordie Howe
The NHL may never see anyone like Gordie Howe again. Known as Mr. Hockey, he led the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cups and is the only player to have competed in the league in five different decades.
In Mr. Hockey, the man widely recognized as the greatest all-around player the sport/i>/i>
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THE DEFINITIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SPORTS LEGEND
The NHL may never see anyone like Gordie Howe again. Known as Mr. Hockey, he led the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cups and is the only player to have competed in the league in five different decades.
In Mr. Hockey, the man widely recognized as the greatest all-around player the sport has ever seen tells the story of his incredible life...
Twenty consecutive seasons among the top five scorers in the NHL. One hundred points after the age of forty. Playing for Team Canada with his two sons. Gordie Howe rewrote the record books. But despite Howe’s unyielding ferocity on the ice, his name has long been a byword for decency, generosity, and honesty off of it.
Going back to Howe’s Depression-era roots and following him through his Hall of Fame career, his enduring marriage to his wife, Colleen, and his extraordinary relationship with his children, Mr. Hockey is the definitive account of the game’s most celebrated legacy, as told by the man himself.
FOREWORD BY BOBBY ORR
From the Trade Paperback edition.
In this genial memoir, Howe recounts his remarkable career as a professional athlete. Raised in Depression-era Saskatoon, Canada, Howe developed the toughness and drive that would be the hallmarks of his playing style. Ambidextrous and with unusually short legs (27 in. inseam) on his 6'1" frame, Howe could do everything on the ice, and was as renowned for his fighting as for his scoring (A "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" is when a player has a goal, an assist, and a fight in a game). After winning four Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, Howe played on a line with two of his sons in the WHL Houston Aereos, and received that league's most valuable player award in 1974, at the age of 46. Howe modestly downplays the qualities that earned him the name of "Mister Hockey." The chapters on his impoverished childhood provide a vivid picture of a world without central heating or indoor plumbing where kids played on frozen ponds and made shin guards out of magazines. Even as a star with the Red Wings, Howe still worked day jobs in the off-seasons, and his long career tracks the transformation of elite athletes from regular Joes at the mercy of owners to the mega-millionaires of today. (Oct.)
“Intimate memoir...With a foreword by Bobby Orr and a final chapter written collectively by Howe’s four children, the book will appeal to hockey fans who remember Howe and his career.”—Booklist
Praise for Gordie Howe
“The greatest is Gordie—he’s my man.”—Bobby Orr
“The greatest one of all...still the greatest in my mind and in everybody else’s mind.”—Wayne Gretzky
A legendary hockey star, now 86, reviews his storied and stellar career.In the acknowledgements, Howe thanks Paul Haavardsrud, a Canadian journalist, "who helped to take the thoughts in my head and put them down on paper," but only Howe's name appears on the cover and title page. No assist for Haavardsrud? Regardless, this memoir is fairly conventional, beginning (after an introduction) with his birth in 1928 and proceeding chronologically. (The author appends some celebratory words from his children.) Occasionally, he pauses to comment about various hockey-related issues—hockey violence, the late-career discovery that the Detroit Red Wings (long his hockey home) had lied to him about his salary (they had assured him he was the highest paid player, but he was not), injuries (he had over 300 facial stitches), the sad economic situation in today's Detroit, and the vast differences in salaries between his day and ours. But the most interesting sections deal with his discovery of the game, his long devotion to it and his many achievements, listed at the end. Howe has kind words for his successors as the premier hockey stars: Bobby Orr (who wrote the somewhat fawning foreword) and Wayne Gretzky, whom Howe met when the Great One was only 11. Howe also writes with great fondness about his family—his parents, his wife, Colleen (who died in 2009), and his children (his two sons were hockey stars in their own rights). He greatly enjoyed his time playing on the same team with his sons and even won the World Hockey Association MVP award in their first year together in Houston. The author intersperses portions of personal letters he sent to and received from family members. Lots of action, a bit of rumination and few regrets in this unremarkable work by a most remarkable athlete.
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For Colleen, the love of my life, and for my children, Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray
FOREWORD BY BOBBY ORR
Many times over the years, I have been asked who I consider to be the greatest hockey player of all time. My answer has never changed—it is Gordie Howe. And so, being asked to write a foreword for Gordie Howe’s memoir is a great honor for me.
I’m not sure that younger generations of sports fans realize just how good Gordie Howe was as a hockey player. Certainly, people know he is one of the legends. I observed that firsthand when he attended a Canucks–Sharks game in 2013. When the TV cameras spotted him and put his face on the Jumbotron, the place erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation. Players from both teams stood at their respective benches, everyone reluctant to line up for the face-off. So, yes, there is a healthy respect for Number 9.
But I’m not just talking about being one of the greatest hockey players ever. I am talking about being the greatest player ever. Period.
Think of it this way: Today, if a player cracks the top five in scoring in the NHL, he’s considered a star. Do it a couple of years in a row and you’re a superstar. Alex Ovechkin did it once. Sidney Crosby has done it back-to-back twice. Steve Stamkos managed it four years in a row. You get the idea. You have to be a pretty good hockey player to make that list even once. Well, Gordie Howe did it twenty years in a row. That’s right—twenty. How do you begin to do justice to a legacy like that? Maybe we should compare him to the greats in other sports. When you look at golf and the way in which that game celebrates legends such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, you get a sense of what Gordie Howe means to hockey.
Gordie is a quiet and humble man. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a more determined will to win. If you ever watched him in action during his career, you know that it’s hard to describe how he could dominate. We’re all taught to play with both hands on our stick. Gordie must have missed that day in hockey school, because he was happy playing with just one. When I came into the league, one thing I noticed after making the jump from junior was just how strong the guys were. And there was Gordie: stickhandling and passing with one hand and pushing the best players in the world off with the other hand. If Gordie wanted to hold on to the puck, there was pretty much no way you were going to get it.
Hockey fans often wonder what would have happened if Gordie had been in the lineup for the 1972 Summit Series against the Russians. The series came during his first retirement, but I would have liked to see what he did on the ice. Would the Russians have found a way to defend against him? No one in the NHL ever did. And when I say “ever,” I’m talking about more than twenty-five years. No doubt about it, Gordie would have made Canada a better team.
Coaches usually come up with a game plan to contain the stars on the other team, but there was really no way to contain Number 9 completely. That kind of coaching requires you to identify a weakness, and Gordie didn’t have one. What was there to exploit? He could play along the boards with the very best. He could dangle in open ice as well. Try to stand him up and he’d knock you down. Outmuscling him was never going to work. You could try to pressure him, but there was hardly a cooler passer in the game. How do you defend against all of that? One thing you didn’t want to do, though, was try to get under his skin. That approach can work against a lot of star-quality players. If you’re “the man,” guys are going to take liberties with you. Gordie was definitely the man, but after a while even the toughest guys in the league knew not to stir up the hornet’s nest. If you got under Gordie’s skin, you would soon wish you hadn’t. I say this as someone who once got his stick up a little too high on Mr. Hockey. Not long after what he considered to be a cheap shot, I found myself on my rear end with Gordie looking down at me, a very unfriendly expression on his face. When I asked him about it later, he showed another side of his personality—his sense of humor. “I’m a very religious player,” he said. “I think it’s much better to give than to receive.” Not too many guys made that mistake twice with Number 9.
We talk about the role of the “enforcer” in the game, but Gordie didn’t need one. He wasn’t just an elite talent, but was something of an enforcer himself. He would stick up for himself and his teammates. Gordie eventually had some teammates he took special care to protect. Playing with his sons Mark and Marty meant that a whole new generation of opponents had to learn to be careful around anyone with “Howe” on the back of his jersey. A father and two of his boys playing professional hockey at the same time on the same team . . . I wonder if that will ever happen again!
After I retired from the game, Gordie was still playing and doing it well enough to be voted onto All-Star teams. Here’s a little history for you: He played in his first All-Star Game in the year I was born. He retired and had been inducted into the Hall of Fame but then returned to the game, still producing nearly a point a game while playing in the NHL. In 1980, the All-Star Game was held in Detroit. Naturally, Gordie was chosen to represent Hartford that year. In many ways, he was a sentimental favorite. Incredibly, that was his twenty-third All-Star Game while playing in his fifth decade as a pro, an unheard of statistic. The average NHL career lasts about five years. And keep in mind that the average NHL player is a very good hockey player. That means that Gordie had greater than four times more All-Star seasons than most very good players have seasons, period.
Now, there he was, back in Detroit where he had started playing in the 1940s. The fans went crazy. One by one, players were introduced as they came onto the ice. As future Hall of Famers like Larry Robinson, Darryl Sittler, and Guy Lafleur came skating out, the announcer called out their names and the teams they were representing.
Then it was Gordie’s turn.
“From the Hartford Whalers, representing hockey with great distinction for five decades, number 9 . . . ”
The announcer never got to say Gordie’s name. Everyone in Detroit knew who wore number 9. The fans at Joe Louis Arena were on their feet before the announcer had finished, and they remained standing while Gordie stood on the blue line. You could tell he wasn’t sure what to do. He would look up and the crowd would roar. Then he would look back down. He wasn’t comfortable being the center of attention. But the cheers went on and on. Then the chant went up: “Gordie! Gordie!” Finally, after several minutes of this deafening roar, the officials were able to have the anthem played in order to start the game. By the way, at the age of fifty-one, Gordie had an assist in the game.
As I consider his wonderful career today, I realize that Gordie’s accomplishments are so impressive that it is almost impossible to understand them by comparing them to those of other players. You can’t say that he played like this guy or that guy, because there has never been anyone who played the total game in the way Gordie did. No one has ever combined strength, skill, determination, and longevity in the way Gordie did over all those years. No one captured the respect of players and the adoration of fans like Gordie did. And no one handled that level of fame and stardom with such genuine humility and graciousness. Even today, he still greets fans with the kind of warmth you just can’t fake. So you can’t talk about how great Gordie was as a hockey player without also mentioning what a great person he is.
His longevity as a professional hockey player reflects his absolute passion for the game. I believe it was his passion to play that set him apart from his peers. As a young teenager, meeting Gordie for the first time, I already knew he was special. That feeling has not changed. Gordie Howe will always be one of my heroes. And, in my opinion, he will always be the best that ever played.
The puck felt good in my hand.
I’d have liked it to be on my stick, but I suppose those days are long past. The only time I get on the ice now seems to be when I’m part of an occasion, which is exactly where I found myself last New Year’s Eve. Detroit was hosting the 2014 NHL Winter Classic, an outdoor game between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs. The next day, more than a hundred thousand people would turn up at Michigan Stadium to watch Toronto beat Detroit in a shootout. But New Year’s Eve was for the old-timers.
The Wings had asked my old linemate Ted Lindsay and me to drop the ceremonial first puck in an alumni game between the two clubs. Steve Yzerman, retired since 2006, looked like he could still be playing in the NHL as he lined up to take the draw against Leafs captain Darryl Sittler. The weight of the rubber puck was pleasing as I bounced it in my hand and waited for them to come to the circle. I glanced over at Ted, as I had so many times before, and it seemed like it hadn’t been that long ago that we’d lined up to take the draw for real. We’ve both added more wrinkles and our hair is thinner, but he didn’t look that much different to me than when we were on the Production Line together.
More than thirty-three thousand fans had shown up at Comerica Park, the Tigers’ home field, to watch hockey. I’ve been around Detroit so long that I can remember taking batting practice in old Tiger Stadium, when it was still called Briggs Stadium. As much as things change, though, they also stay the same. Hockey, for one, has remained a constant in my life. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in an NHL arena, at a local rink, or on a sheet of ice in the middle of a baseball stadium, when I’m around the game I feel at home. It’s a good thing, too, since I was such a shy kid. No matter how many people were in the stands, though, nerves were never a problem for me when I played. The ice was the one place I always felt comfortable. Stepping in front of a packed house at Comerica Park, I found that what was true then still held true that day. The faces may have changed, but when I waved to the crowd, it felt as familiar as if I were back at Olympia Stadium. I’m lucky for that. I’m lucky in a lot of ways.
I was fortunate enough to play professional hockey for thirty-two years. If you’d asked me when I broke into the league if I thought I’d still be playing five decades later, I would have said you were crazy. When the Red Wings called me up from their farm club in Omaha in 1946, I just wanted to last the season. From then on, if the team decided to bring me back for another year, I wasn’t going to complain. From the time I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was play hockey. Even at the end of my career, when I was the only guy in the dressing room with grandkids, strapping on my pads every day still felt as normal as ever. The air turning chilly in the fall was like nature’s way of telling me to put on my skates and get back to work.
I ended up watching a lot of the world go by while on the ice. My NHL career started a year after Harry Truman replaced Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. When I retired, Ronald Reagan was only a year away from taking over from Jimmy Carter. In between, I saw seven American presidents pass through office and even had a chance to meet some of them. It was a good long run by nearly any measure. During my first season with the Red Wings, Jackie Robinson was still a year away from breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. When I hung up my skates for the first time in 1971, he’d already been in the Hall of Fame for a decade. In Detroit, we had front-row seats for the birth of Motown. I moved there during the city’s boomtown years, when Michigan was the center of the U.S. automotive industry. On the ice, the Red Wings piled up four Stanley Cup victories, and we probably should have won a few more. I managed to put the puck in the net 975 times in my professional career, while setting up scores for teammates on more than 1300 other occasions. Away from the arena, I was lucky enough to meet my beautiful wife, Colleen, and together we raised four wonderful children.
I like to think that I’m a family man first and a professional athlete second. With that said, though, I also know that I have hockey to thank for so many of the good things that have happened to me over the years. The game has blessed me with a lifetime of memories. I’ve had a chance to share some of them before, but I’ve never taken the time to tell my whole story in one place. It’s humbling to think that a shy kid from Saskatoon could write a book that anyone would want to read. As with so many things in my life, I’m grateful—and still somewhat amazed—to be given the opportunity.
• • •
Since retiring, I’ve often thought that some of the happiest years of my career were spent in Houston, where I had the chance to play with my sons Marty and Mark. I wasn’t the player then that I was during the glory years in Detroit, but how many fathers get the chance to play professional hockey with their kids? It’s what brought back the fun and excitement of my youth and kept me going into my fifties. Standing rinkside at the Winter Classic watching Mark—who’s best remembered as a Flyer, but ended his career in Detroit—take the ice for the Red Wings, it was easy for me to recall our years playing together in the World Hockey Association. Now retired for nearly twenty years and nursing a couple of bad disks in his back, I thought Mark still looked as smooth as ever on the ice. The countless laps he put in skating around the rink as a kid were clearly enough to last him a lifetime.
The alumni game, as exhibition matches often do, started slowly. Time away from the ice combined with a windy day and below-freezing temperatures had everyone more concerned about staying warm and healthy than trying to make a big play. Both squads were filled with players who knew each other well. The Leafs had brought fan favorites such as Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and Borje Salming, while the Red Wings had matched with stalwarts like Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, and Nick Lidstrom. Everyone was happy to laugh with old teammates and share a smile with former rivals—at least at the start of the game.
Compared to my era, NHL hockey has evolved in ways that are both good and bad. When I watched the alumni game, it was comforting to see that at least one thing hasn’t changed: The will to win never goes away. The boys on the ice may have lost a few steps, but once they’d warmed up, they couldn’t help themselves. It didn’t matter how long they’d been retired, who they were playing, or where the game was being held—no one wanted to lose. At one point, Tiger Williams even started chirping at Chris Chelios for celebrating a goal with a little too much gusto. He wasn’t kidding, either. I might have some quibbles with the way the game is played today, but at its core, I know that hockey will always be hockey no matter what year the calendar reads.
Today’s brand of NHL hockey is still exciting, but if I had my way I’d like to see more creativity come back into the game. When I played, there were more opportunities to carry the puck, but you don’t see that as much anymore. As the game has evolved, the schemes have become more sophisticated. My old coach Tommy Ivan used to say there were only two moves you needed to know in order to play defense: either you knock the puck away from the man or you knock the man off the puck. It worked for us in the 1950s, but the game has changed a lot since then and, unfortunately, not all for the better. I don’t need to rehash criticisms of the neutral zone trap and other systems used to slow down talented players, except to say that they’ve choked some of the excitement from the game. These days, offenses are often reduced to dumping the puck into the other team’s zone or chipping it off the boards. There’s not enough room for players to generate speed through the neutral zone and make a play. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t good; far from it.
The NHL used to be limited to Canadian and American players, but now it includes the best players from around the world. I thought about that at the alumni game while watching Mark take a shift with Slava Fetisov, his old defense partner. Slava was there along with the other members of the so-called Russian Five—Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Vladimir Konstantinov—who played together in Detroit in the 1990s. Seeing Russians and Europeans in the NHL is commonplace now, but it still feels relatively new to players of my generation. It’s made the game better.
When I’m asked to compare players from different eras, my answer is always the same. I’m convinced that great players would fare well no matter when they played. If Sidney Crosby had been around in the 1950s, he’d have been as good then as he is now. Likewise, Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky would be standouts in any era. As for Gordie Howe? Well, my sons figure I’d do well in today’s game provided I could figure out how to stay on the ice. I was fortunate enough to win a number of awards during my career, but the Lady Byng Trophy wasn’t one of them. That wasn’t an accident.
To my way of thinking, the two most important things you need to survive in pro hockey are time and space. I found that a surefire way to earn a wider berth the next time I came around was to give someone a good crack. If his teammates took away a message as well, then so much the better. I’m aware that not everyone approved of how I played, but I don’t think any apologies are in order. Early in my career I decided that it was worth it to do whatever was necessary to earn the extra split second it takes to make a pass or shoot the puck. The way I saw it, everyone in the league was getting paid to do a job. Mine was to help my team win games. There were lines I wouldn’t cross, but as long as I did everything in my power up to that point, I didn’t have any problem sleeping at night.
These days, officials might see things differently. Back then, we had more leeway to police ourselves, and I think the game was more civilized as a result. Everyone knew the rules, both written and unwritten, as well as the consequences for breaking them. It bred a lot of respect into the game. The referees still blew their whistles, but the play wasn’t stopped as often as it is now. Of course, today’s game also has its advantages. In my day, there was too much hooking and holding by players who couldn’t keep up. It was terrible. The league has done a good job of cutting down on much of that nonsense. I enjoyed the style of hockey played in my era, but I suppose there will always be trade-offs no matter when you play.
Since retiring, I’m sometimes asked how I managed to play into my fifties. My answer is simple: I loved playing the game. That’s all there is to it. It’s the one thing I have in common with every great player I’ve ever known. It doesn’t matter who you ask—Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Hull, or Bobby Orr—the answer is always the same. I remember being at a banquet in Brampton in the early 1970s and meeting an eleven-year-old Wayne Gretzky, who was already making a name for himself by that point. When I shook his hand, I saw a look in his eye that I recognized straight away. Years later, I wasn’t the least surprised when his name started going into the record books.
If I learned one thing by playing professional hockey for thirty-two years, it’s that you have to love what you do. And that’s not just true for sports. Not long ago, I was talking to our son Murray, who’s a doctor, and told him the same thing. If a day comes when he wakes up and doesn’t love medicine, then he’ll know it’s time to hang up his lab coat and do something else. It wasn’t the first time we’ve had that conversation and it probably won’t be the last. I figure life’s too short to live any other way.
I was lucky enough to find hockey when I was six years old. It’s been eighty years since then, and I still love the game just as much as I ever did. I don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find the shy kid who was raised in Saskatoon in the Dust Bowl years. Looking back at where I’ve been still makes me shake my head in disbelief. I couldn’t have been any more fortunate. I wish everyone my kind of luck.
How do I even begin to tell the story of my whole life?
Like so many folks, I’ve been a father, a son, a friend, and a husband. I’ve done things I’m proud of and some I wish I could take back. And, of course, there’s hockey. For the Howe family there’s always hockey. I love the game. It was good to me, and when I stop to think about it, I like to believe I gave a little back to it as well. One thing is for certain: I never got tired of lacing up my skates. If I could take a few turns around a sheet of ice right now, I would.
As much as I’m known for playing hockey, the game isn’t where my story starts. In fact, it doesn’t even begin with me. The whole thing was set in motion long before I even showed up. It’s humbling when you stop to think about it. If you make it anywhere in life, you owe that success to the people along the way who stuck up for you, or made sacrifices for you, and gave you a push when you needed it. In my case, those people were my family.
• • •
In any case, to tell the story right, I need to go all the way back to the beginning—to a little farmhouse with a dirt wall in Floral, Saskatchewan. People often assume that I come from Floral, but that’s not exactly right. I was born there on March 31, 1928, but nine days later the family moved down the road to Saskatoon. There wasn’t much to Floral back then. Just a small collection of houses huddled around a grain elevator. I went back to see our farmhouse once. It was a few miles from the elevator, tiny, made of wood, and built into a hill. I thought about my parents living in such a dingy place, raising a bunch of kids. The high plains of Saskatchewan can get pretty bleak, especially during winter. Their lives weren’t easy; I know that.
My father, Albert, or Ab, came to Canada from Minnesota, lured by the promise of a homestead under the Dominion Lands Act. He did his best as a farmer, but growing crops on the Canadian prairies at the start of the Great Depression wasn’t a guaranteed way to feed a family. To help make ends meet, he would pick up work as a mechanic at a local service station or on construction sites. That’s where he was when I was born. He’d taken his horse team into Saskatoon, about nine miles west, to work as an excavator.
My mother, born Katherine Schultz in Stuttgart, Germany, was the strongest woman I’ve ever known. When she was young, she was separated from her parents and was passed from family to family until her grandfather found her. He was a coffin maker and often buried victims of cholera, typhus, and influenza. People would knock on his door and hand their dead children to my mother, who was little more than a child herself at the time. My mother came from tough stock, to say the least. She eventually reunited with her family and later immigrated with them to Canada. They ended up in Windsor, of all places, right across the river from Detroit. Mum took a job there as a housekeeper until her family decided to move farther west. That’s how she ended up in Saskatchewan, which is where she met my dad. On the day I was born she was outside chopping wood when her labor pains set in. At that time, pioneers often had to take care of themselves. I was the sixth of nine children, so she knew what to do. With only a couple of kids around for company, she put some buckets of water on the stove and got into bed. After I was born, she cut the umbilical cord herself and waited for my father to come home. As I said, Mum was tough.
She wasn’t doing so well when Dad finally arrived, so he hurried over to my Aunt Mary’s place and brought her back to look after Mum. She’d been hemorrhaging from the birth, but she healed up pretty quickly after she got some proper care. In the meantime, Dad, who’d given up on trying to scrape out a living off the land, packed up the house in Floral and moved the rest of us into a place on the outskirts of Saskatoon.
In those days, we didn’t have a lot; no one really did. Dad was always hustling around for work, picking up this job or that one. Eventually he was hired as a foreman with the city and he ended up working there for as long as I can remember. To make ends meet, Dad used to do some hunting. The government would pay a one-cent bounty for gopher tails and you could get up to $15 or $20 for a coyote pelt.
My father was a real outdoorsman and he could ride a horse with the best of them. He used to talk about a roan he had once. It was known as a killer horse—it would kill a man if given the chance—but it could really run. Its owners wanted to put it down because it was too dangerous, but Dad stepped in and said he’d take it instead.
One time, before I was born, he was out in the countryside on that horse looking for work and saw a coyote. The way he told the story, he couldn’t shoot it because he couldn’t afford any cartridges for his rifle, but the coyote was too valuable to let go. He spurred that horse and they took off after the coyote. After a long chase, they ran the thing down. Since his gun was useless, my father took out his hunting knife, leaned over in the saddle, snagged the coyote’s back leg, and slashed its tendon. Then he dismounted and finished it off. He took the coyote to the factor, got paid, and had enough to buy more ammunition. That was the type of guy Dad was. He did what had to be done to get by.
There were eleven of us in that little house in Saskatoon: my parents and nine kids, four boys and five girls. I was pretty much in the middle: Gladys, Vernon, Norman, Violet, Edna, me, Victor, Joan, and my little sister Helen.
When we were kids, we didn’t have a lot. I guess we were poor, but we never really thought about ourselves that way. It was just the way things were. Of course, they were that way for a lot of families. I won’t go into the history of the Great Depression, but those were tough times. Between low grain prices and terrible harvests, farmers were taking a beating. Farms were abandoned all over the Prairies, and there was a steady stream of people leaving in the hopes of finding work somewhere else. Sometimes we’d eat oatmeal two or three times a day because that’s all my parents could afford. For milk, my dad used to buy Carnation powder and we’d add about a gallon of water to it. If you’ve never tried watered-down powdered milk before, I don’t recommend you start now.
The lack of proper nutrition eventually caught up with me. When I was just a kid, the doctor told my mother that my back wasn’t strong enough and I was developing spinal problems. He said that if I fell down or took the wrong kind of hit, a hard enough blow to my back might break it. He put me on some vitamin supplements, as well as on my first physical training program. It was sort of like a homemade version of the physiotherapy we have today. He had me hang like a monkey from the top of a doorway and swing my hips from side to side. The idea was to strengthen my back muscles and straighten my spine. It was pretty crude but it must have worked. My old back held up through more than thirty years of professional hockey, so I guess that doctor knew what he was doing.
• • •
From a certain perspective, I suppose I could say that I have the Great Depression to thank for jump-starting my hockey career. It was 1933 and we weren’t the only family in Saskatoon that needed a few extra dollars. One day, a neighbor whose husband was sick came to the door with a gunnysack full of her used things and asked my mother if she would buy it to help the woman get milk for her family. Mum didn’t have much, but she was able to scrape together a few dollars. That’s the way things were then. When the going got tough, sometimes it was neighbors looking out for each other that allowed everyone to get by. Like so many things in my life, I have my mother’s kindness to thank for what came next.
We dumped out the sack on the floor and, along with some old clothes, out came a pair of skates. I spied them immediately, but so did my sister Edna. She grabbed one, I grabbed the other, and we ran outside to try them out. They were a men’s size 6, so we pulled on a bunch of woolen socks to get them to fit. We had patches of ice in the garden out back where the snow would melt and then freeze. Edna and I started pushing ourselves across this ice on one skate each. We’d run like hell, pick up our socked foot, and glide across the ice.
When we talked about it years later, my mother and I recalled what happened next differently. She told me my sister kept her skate for a week. I wanted it badly, but she wouldn’t let it go. Eventually I broke down and offered her a dime for it, which Mum loaned me, and Edna finally let me have it. What I remember is my sister getting cold after a few nights of skating and going inside to warm up. Once she took off that skate, I snatched it up and that was the last she ever saw of it. Whichever way it happened, I know that putting on those skates was the moment I fell in love with hockey.
From that day on I skated for as long as I could, whenever I could. I don’t know if it was because I thought I could do well at hockey or whether I just loved to skate. I do know that whenever I jumped on the ice, I felt like a million bucks. Later on, when I got a bit bigger, skating was the thing that really opened up my little world.
Back then, if we had heavy rains or an early snowfall, the water would collect in the gullies and sloughs and ponds. When winter came and the water froze, we would get great patches of ice all over the place. The Hudson Bay Slough was about three blocks from my house. We’d walk over there, jump on it, and skate forever. It ran for about four miles, nearly out to the airport, and we’d skate the whole thing.
We also knew where to find all the best skating ponds. All you’d need to do was look for the bluffs on the landscape. Most of them had ponds in between them, so we’d go up into the hills, look down, and there’d be a nice sheet of ice just waiting for us. We’d play until we cut it up; if the ice was thin, it might get a little rubbery and the water would start to follow your tracks. Then we’d take off our skates and move on to the next pond.
When winter really set in and the river froze, we’d play on it as well. The Prairies can get pretty windy, which isn’t much fun most of the time, but it did clear the snow off the South Saskatchewan, the big river that flows through Saskatoon. It felt like we could skate on it all the way to the next city if we wanted to. Mostly, though, we’d make our way up to the Grand Trunk Bridge, a big steel trestle railway bridge that’s still there. The ice was good under that bridge, as a rule, and we used to play hockey in between the piers.
When I first started out, my dad used to sharpen our skates with a file. After a while that became a lot of work, so he came up with a pretty ingenious invention. He was always handy as a mechanic and he built a contraption that hooked on to the washing machine. Then he attached a belt to the flywheel of the washer that turned a grinding stone. After that he was able to sharpen our skates all the time without much fuss.
The ice we used to skate on really put Dad’s homemade sharpener through its paces. The gravel roads in Saskatoon at the time had four ruts in them for car tires. During the day the snow that covered the roads would melt slightly, and then at night it would refreeze, which created ribbons of ice that were just made for skating. I even had street shoes with blades on them. The odd time that I’d get a new pair of shoes, my dad would take the old ones and attach metal straight blades to their soles. They made great skates. As soon as he put the blades on, I’d be off. The whole city was like our backyard. We could go anywhere we wanted, and we did. We’d even get behind a bus, grab on to the bumper, and go for a free ride. We called it “trailing.” The drivers weren’t too happy about it. Every now and then they’d stop and chase us, but it wasn’t much of a deterrent. We could skate faster than they could run, so it wasn’t like getting caught was a big worry.
Most of the time, we were just looking to get somewhere to play more hockey. We’d play every day after school, and on the weekends we’d go from early morning until late at night. Imagine a game that lasted for twelve hours with kids coming and going. I’d play for hours, then when I got cold or hungry I’d skate back home. It’s been said that, while growing up, I ate meals with my skates on. It’s true. Mum would spread newspapers over the linoleum floor in our house, so my brothers and friends and I could come inside on our skates. After we warmed up and had something to eat, we’d head right back outside. It was as if we hadn’t left the game. We’d just ask someone the score and start playing again.
Anyone who’s ever gone to a rink and stepped onto a sheet of freshly Zambonied ice knows it’s something special. It’s so smooth and perfect, it’s like a canvas. And that’s what you get just at a local arena. Move up to the NHL and skating onto a fresh sheet of ice is like being in a cathedral. Playing outside is something different altogether. The ice isn’t pristine like it is indoors. It’ll be uneven in spots and have ripples and ridges and bumps in others. I’ve always been strong on my skates, and I give some of the credit to spending my childhood skating outside on different kinds of ice in all types of conditions. Once I got to proper rinks, the ice was so nice it was like cheating. It really let you fly.
Nowadays it seems that kids don’t play much hockey unless it’s organized. I understand that times have changed, but I always figured that the way to get better at something is to do it as much as possible. Maybe I was too single-minded at times, but that’s the way I was with hockey.
A number of years ago I remember asking some young guys if they ever played hockey with a tennis ball. They said it was pucks for them, mostly. I think that’s a shame. When I was a kid we would play ball hockey on the road or in driveways all the time. With a tennis ball, you’re basically playing with a bouncing puck. You can’t force a tennis ball; you need to be light of hand to control it, so playing with one really helps to develop your touch. Plus, if you play it against a wall, when it comes back your way either you learn how to trap it with your stick blade or you end up spending your time chasing it down the street. I didn’t like chasing tennis balls too much, so I became pretty good at trapping them out of the air. I told these youngsters that was how I practiced as a kid. Whenever I went anywhere, I was stickhandling a ball down the road.
Years later I read a story about Steve Nash, the basketball player. When he was in college, he used to dribble a tennis ball around campus on his way to class. He won a couple of MVP awards in the NBA, so I guess a tennis ball helped him out, too.
Growing up, I would spend hours shooting a ball or a puck at the side of our house. We had a shingled veranda, which ran about two-thirds of the way around the house. It made a great target. I’d sit back and fire away, breaking more than a few of the shingles in the process. After a while, the veranda started to get down to the bare planks. One day, my dad came out of the house, took a look at it, and shook his head at me. He didn’t get too angry, though. Instead, he took me for a walk down to the Quaker Oats mill. We found a couple of big plywood sheets that had come off the railroad grain cars and Dad carried them home. He leaned one up against the house, put the other down on the driveway, and told me to keep shooting as much as I wanted.
Over the years, some folks have suggested that my father was too hard on me. He was stern, sure. And he was tough. He also had to work a lot to keep food on the table, so he wasn’t around for the kids like Mum was, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t care. The Depression made for tough times everywhere, but the Prairies were hit particularly hard. Wheat was the major crop, and when the bottom fell out of the market, it took Saskatchewan down with it. Not that farmers were able to grow much during a drought anyway, maybe a couple of bushels an acre if they were fortunate. The summers then were hotter and drier than any I’ve seen since, and when the wind came up there was nothing to stop the topsoil from blowing away. It was called the Dirty Thirties for a reason. Even as a kid, I understood that Saskatoon was in bad shape. There was hardly any work and there wasn’t anything going on. I remember feeling lucky that my dad had a job. I knew other families that were on relief; that’s what social assistance was called at the time. Dad couldn’t be involved in my life the way parents are these days, but he was still there for us in a way that fathers were back then.
What People are Saying About This
“The greatest is Gordie—he's my man,”—Bobby Orr
Meet the Author
Gordie Howe (1928-2016) played for the Detroit Red Wings and the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League, and the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers in the WHA. A four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Red Wings, he won six Hart trophies as the league’s most valuable player and six Art Ross trophies as the leading scorer. He was the inaugural recipient of the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. He was the only player to have competed in the NHL in five different decades (1940s through 1980s).
Gordie Howe’s name and nickname, “Mr. Hockey,” as well as his wife’s nickname, “Mrs. Hockey,” are registered trademarks.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Disappointing. I found that reading (actually listening, I had the audio version as read by Don Hagen) Gordie Howe's autobiography would be enlightening. Instead, I found very little in this book that I hadn't already read in earlier books. The main exceptions were a few letters from Colleen to Gordie during his playing days; however, the main point of the letters – the couple loved each other and Colleen dealt with the home front while Gordie was off playing hockey – simply over-emphasized a point already well-made. Worse, a truly funny story about a young Mark Howe and Gordie was exactly the same tale I'd read about between Brett Hull and his father, Bobby. I find it hard to believe that BOTH father/son Hall-of-Fame pairs had the exact same moment when the elder was playing and the younger was in elementary school – but which actually did it (if either), and which cribbed it? And there was so little about Gordie's post-playing days (after his second retirement from the ice) – surely some interesting things happened during that time interval. (I remember watching the 3 Howes share the ice during a “Heroes of Hockey” game in conjunction with an NHL All-Star weekend, for example.) The most interesting and enlightening part of the tale, in my opinion, was the Afterward provided by the Howe family's children. They discussed what it was like growing up in a famous family, and how Gordie was dealing with his admittedly twilight years. Perhaps if I had never read anything about Mr. Howe, I would have enjoyed this book more. However, even then, I strongly suspect I would have noticed the many missing elements of the story. RATING: 2 1/2 stars, rounded up to 3 stars when 1/2 stars are not permitted. And it pains me to say this about a classy guy like Mr. Howe.
Review: Gordie Howe is one of the few athletes who is recognized by people who are not fans of the sport in which he or she played. He was the first player to have played in the NHL during five decades and held all career scoring records at the time of his retirement in 1980. While these may have been broken by Wayne Gretzky, Howe remains as popular as ever and the release of this autobiography was a much-anticipated book. While he tells of his tales growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with reverence and also how he became an NHL player at the tender age of 18 without sounding too self-serving, this book doesn’t really reveal any great new details about the man, nor does it stray away from the tried-and-true format for sports biographies. This doesn’t mean it is a boring book or one that should be avoided – it just didn’t have anything that lived up to the hype. There are some touching moments when he talks about his personal life. I especially enjoyed when he included letters that he and his wife Colleen wrote to each other – both when they were courting and when he was away at training camp or on the road. There are also letters written by his sons included in the book and they helped the reader picture the man off the ice. Plenty of the book does deal with his career on the ice and about the business of hockey. Most of his career took place when the NHL had only six teams and both the game and the business was vastly different than it is today. Howe’s stories paint a good picture of what those times were like, and he is careful not to criticize either the game at that time or today’s players. The best section of the book when he talks about his playing days is late in the book, when he played alongside his two older sons, Marty and Mark (the latter joined his dad in the Hockey Hall of Fame). It is obvious he was beaming with pride when he had the chance to do this, even if his body was not cooperating. The narration provided by Hagen is also good. Like the content of the book, it was solid but not spectacular. But then, it matched the tone Howe had when he played. He was mostly a gentleman but when he had to be tough, he was. Overall, this was a good book to listen to while commuting and one that hockey fans will enjoy as long as they are not looking for something spectacular. Did I skim? No Do I recommend? While it wasn’t much different than other sports biographies, this book will be one that fans of either Howe or the Red Wings will enjoy. Readers who also like celebrity biographies will enjoy it as well, especially the stories of Howe and his sons.
This book was great
I've grown up around hockey my whole life, and while in college i worshipped NHL Network where Howe,Coffey, Gretzky and Listrom had specials in the afternoon. This book is perfect for biography fans and any and every hockey fan should read this gem!
I cannot imagine a hockey fan NOT enjoying this book. Gordie Howe is a sport icon and great man. This book does an excellent job telling his story.
Gordie Howe lived the game as no other player alive can relate to. He skated with the greats, his sons & into 5 decades. This book is a MUST for any hockey fan. Records may come & go, but it is the legacy of this individual that will stand the test of time.
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