Howe’s steel trap hockey mind played no favorites

June 11, 2016

When he entered the National Hockey League, all the teams traveled by train. A western swing meant games in Chicago and Detroit.

There were 120 players, total, in the entire league. The rinks were surrounded by wire cages, not plexiglass. Teams played each other 14 times per season. There weren’t rivalries, there were continuations.

You didn’t have to wait months to get retribution, if there was retribution to be gotten.

But sometimes, Gordie Howe bided his time.

“I found out the hard way that I should call him Mr. Howe.”

The speaker was Stan Mikita, a Hall of Famer and every bit as entwined with the Chicago Black Hawks (they split it into two words in Stan’s day) as Howe was with the Red Wings.

Mikita was a young player in the NHL. One of his teammates was the great Ted Lindsay, who knew Howe as well as anyone.

“I nicked him with my stick,” Mikita recalled. “Gordie took his glove off, and checked for blood. There were maybe a few drops on his face.”

Howe told Mikita that he’d pay for the blood, no matter how little.

Mikita, young and full of himself, derided Howe.

“Oh yeah, old man? You should be out of the league.”

Lindsay was within earshot of this on-ice exchange.

In between periods, Terrible Ted went up to Mikita.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Lindsay, who knew a thing or two about Howe’s retribution, said to Mikita about the “old man” remark.

“Ted wasn’t concerned about the blood,” Mikita said as he related the story in Chicago several years ago. “But he didn’t think that Gordie would take kindly to the ‘old man’ remark.”

As mentioned above, the NHL teams played each other 14 times in the 70-game schedule. And many Detroit-Chicago tilts went by after the “old man” remark with nary a glance in Mikita’s direction from Howe.

“I figured he forgot all about it,” Mikita said.

Then one night, during yet another Red Wings-Black Hawks match, Mikita made a pass and admired it a little bit.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up on the trainer’s table.

The Black Hawks’ backup goalie, “a French-Canadian,” Mikita said, told the Black Hawks center what happened to him.

“(Howe) took his glove off, gave you a punch, then  put his glove back on and skated away,” the goalie said. “20,000 people in the building and I was the only one who saw it!”

Gordie never forgot the “old man” remark, after all.

“From then on, I learned to call Gordie, ‘Mr. Howe,'” Mikita said.

Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.

“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”

Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.

He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.

Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.

This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.

It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.

He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.

Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.

Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.

He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.

Howe, within a few hellacious moments, virtually ended the tough guy career of New York’s Lou Fontinato in 1959.

There was a scrum behind the Rangers net. Howe was looking on. Fontinato had an idea.

Louie tried to cold cock Howe, but Gordie, again using his amazing quickness, caught Fontinato in his peripheral vision.

Rangers goalie Gump Worsley said that the sound of Howe’s fists pummeling Fontinato’s face was like “someone chopping wood.”

It didn’t take long. But when they peeled Fontinato from the ice, his face looked like a Picasso.

“I broke his nose a little bit,” Howe said in typical understatement.

Images of Fontinato’s deformed face made the wires across the league and Louie’s reputation as a tough guy was gone.

“I broke his nose a little bit.”

When the NHL was getting more strict on hits from behind, Howe posed a simple question that captured his larger-than-life persona.

“If I’m chasing a guy,” Howe wondered, “how the hell am I gonna hit him from the front?”

Someone once asked Howe who had the hardest shot in the league.

“Dr. Finley,” Howe said without hesitation.

That would be John Finley, the Red Wings’ longtime team doctor.

I reminded Dr. Finley of Howe’s statement back in 2007, the night they retired Steve Yzerman’s no. 19.

The doc threw his head back and roared with laughter. He had forgotten about the quote.

Speaking of that night, I was doing some work for Fox Sports Detroit. My job was to corral Red Wing dignitaries for in-game interviews between whistles.

One of them was Mr. Hockey.

At the appointed time, I sidled up to Gordie—Mr. Howe—and said that it was time to get into position for the interview. He didn’t respond right away. I figured he didn’t hear me.

I repeated the request.

“Ah, f*** off,” Gordie said.

He was smiling from ear to ear.

How can being told to f-off turn into such a pleasant memory?

When it comes from Gordie, er, Mr. Howe!

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