Thursday, 22 September 2016

Howe's legend will always be larger than life

The Gordie Howe statue that sits outside the SaskTel Centre.
    Gordie Howe.
    When you mention the late hockey icon’s name, you almost don’t know where to start.
    Along with Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Howe was one of those first hockey stars that was idolized by children. Due to the fact he played 32 seasons in the NHL and WHA, children that idolized “Mr. Hockey” grew up to be parents and watched their children also look up to Howe.
    Growing up in the 1980s, I remember getting into debates and arguments with my late father about who was the greatest hockey player of all-time. For me, the obvious answer was Wayne Gretzky due to the scoring records and ridiculous offensive point totals he was putting up at that time with the Edmonton Oilers.
    My dad would always say I was wrong, and that Howe was the best. Howe was my dad’s childhood hero. The debate always turned to the fact that Howe played most of his years with the Detroit Red Wings in the “Original Six” era of the NHL where the competition wasn’t as watered down as a league that contained 21 teams like the 1980s NHL did.
    Also, no other player had the offensive grace and toughness that Howe possessed, which gave the “Gordie Howe hat trick” life of getting a goal, an assist and a fighting major in the same game.
Sunday will be “Thank You, Mr. Hockey Day” in Saskatchewan. During a private family ceremony in the morning, the ashes of Gordie and his late wife Colleen Howe will be interred at the Gordie Howe statue that sits outside the SaskTel Centre.
    Gordie, who was born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sask., and moved to Saskatoon at age 9, passed away earlier this year on June 10 at age 88. Colleen passed away on March 6, 2009 at age 76.
    After the ceremony, Howe’s family will make their way to the newly built Circle Drive South Bridge, which has been renamed the Gordie Howe Bridge.
    From there, everything shifts back to the SaskTel Centre, where Howe will be honoured in a pre-game ceremony at 2 p.m. before the Saskatoon Blades hit the ice for their WHL regular season home opener against the Swift Current Broncos.
A Gordie Howe card from the 1980s.
    A tailgate party starts in the parking lot at 12 p.m. and the doors to the rink open at 1 p.m.
    It should also be noted the WHL’s Vancouver Giants will also be honouring Howe in a pre-game ceremony before their home opener on Friday against the Everett Silvertips. Howe was a former minority owner of the Giants, and his family members will be in Vancouver before making the journey to the right-winger’s hometown area.
    Both the Giants and Blades games will be shown on Shaw.
    There will be a lot of emotions on both nights. It seems everyone has a Gordie Howe story to tell.
For me, my father’s stories of Howe danced in my head the first and only time I interviewed him.
    The interview occurred in December of 1999, when I was an intern general assignment reporter for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. I was working with fellow interns Jillian MacPherson and Vanessa Lee compiling a list of what Saskatchewan’s movers and shakers were doing to ring in the new millennium.
    When I got on the phone with Howe, I was so nervous. I had to keep from freaking out that I was actually talking to Gordie Howe. It was one of the rare times I was caught being in awe of the celebrity of a person.
    The quote I used from Howe was, “Well, we won’t be doing a heck of a lot of anything. If our grandson is playing on New Year’s, I’ll go watch him play. And that’s Nolan Howe. That’s Mark’s son.
    “Nothing concrete. We’re just laid back, like we were in Saskatchewan.”
    To me, the quote was cool, because it came from Howe.
    The other time I encountered Howe was at the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament, when I was a beat writer covering the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers for the Medicine Hat News. At that time, I wasn’t awestruck, but I felt it was cool to see Howe at the tournament.
    My big memory came from the CHL awards ceremony that year. A bunch of the high rollers that sponsored the Memorial Cup were in attendance. They were nice to talk to, but the mingling had an upper class feel to it.
    I looked at Howe, and he looked like the lost prairie boy. He was being polite and courteous to everyone, but you almost could see a vibe that he wasn’t with his crowd. I totally identified with him at that moment, because I was feeling that way too.
A Gordie Howe card from the 1990s.
    The thing that put Howe over the top for being great was the fact he was ordinary. He did all these limitless spectacular things on the ice, but off of it, he was that kind next door neighbour.
    The public viewed him as being like “you and me.”
    Over the years, I have heard a number of other cool stories featuring Howe. A couple of my favourites were told to me by former NHL players Morris Lukowich and Bryan Maxwell. Those I will pass on via word of mouth otherwise this column would go on forever.
    While hockey took Howe all over the map, he always managed to return to Saskatoon. His last public appearance was at the 55th annual Saskatoon Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner back in February 2015, when a huge number former hockey stars flocked into town.
    It just seems fitting that Howe’s remains will be laid to rest in his hometown area.
    The Blades are expecting 61 members of Howe’s family to be in Saskatoon on the weekend. There will never be a better chance locally to give a heartwarming salute and thanks for all the good things Howe did in his life and the recognition he brought for Saskatoon and Saskatchewan.

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