This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
In 1987, I snuck into the Rendez Vous mid-season all-star event in Quebec City. Me and two friends doctored press clippings—X-acto-knifing our names where the actual reporter's names went—and submitted a proposal for media passes. For weeks we heard nothing, but a few days before the event, which staged the NHL All-Stars versus the Russian National Team (a precursor to the 1987 fall Canada Cup)—the phone rang at my parents' house. Our passes had been approved and could we be in Quebec in two days for the beginning of the first practice?
We hit the train and headed east. I remember arriving at Le Colisee and standing with the other legitimate working journalists near the bench—Al Strachan, Trent Frayne, Dave Hodge, and, inexplicably, Alan Thicke—feeling like an imposter in both the best and worst way.
The Russians swooshed about the ice, and then the NHL players took their turn: Gretzky, Messier, Lemieux, Kurri, Coffey and Bourque. I'd never been so close to the real thing before. I took out my notepad—a notepad would make me look important, I thought—and pretended to write, only to sense someone standing behind me. It was a heavy presence; a heavy adult presence. I thought it might be a cop; a security guard; a Rendez Vous official who'd found me out.
I resisted turning around but I could feel his breath on my shoulder. I pivoted, and staring me in the face with a look that suggested he knew what I was doing and that it was wrong and I was a punk and where did I get off pretending to do something that I hadn't yet earned was Gordie Howe. His look was terrifying: creviced brow, arrowed eyebrows, angry mouth. I waited to be either upbraided by him or taken from the scene the way he'd removed an enforcer whom he'd found sitting on son Marty's back during an Houston Aeros melee: two fingers up both nostrils, pulled screaming from the ice.
"Hi, Mr. Howe," I said, barely croaking out the words.
He looked at me gravely, measuring my words, my notepad, and my hat before his expression melted into what I can't quite describe as a smile, but it was close enough.
"Pleasure to meet you," I told him.
"Pleasure to meet you," he replied.
Gordie was as soft as he was hard; as soft-spoken as he was vociferous; as sensitive as he was mean; as much of a family man and devoted husband as he was a raging and fierce warrior of the ice. That his wife, the amazing Colleen Howe, was an enormous part of his life, his career and his public persona can't properly be measured without understanding the times in which this relationship was established—a time when women were rarely seen in the game, let alone a force in the career and public life of one of the game's greatest players.
The laundry list of achievements tells only part of the story: 26 seasons in the NHL and six in the WHA; leading the league in scoring from 1950-54, then twice more in his career, plus a 15 goal-season at age 52, after which he was given an NHL Lifetime Achievement Award. He's one of the few players in any sport to have had a benchmark named after him: the Gordie Howe hat trick, signifying a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Those who have earned one of these boast the rarest accomplishment, and despite the league's changing veneer, it's still a warrior's badge, respected even with the extinction of league pugilists.
As a man and a player, few were tougher, but no one would have ever called him 'macho,' at least not in the pompous, braggartly way that a lot of other '60s and '70s uber-athletes were. Like the players whose careers he helped shape—Sid Abel, Dave Keon, Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky—he was a humble superstar who pointed to his teammates more than he pointed to himself; an attitude not cultivated by agents and managers wanting to spin his brand, but rather out of a sensitivity for the precariousness and fragility of the sport, an awareness born out of an early life-threatening head injury suffered during a game that was relieved only after doctors geysered blood from his skull on a trainer's table to ease the cranial pressure.
There were other things, for better or worse: the aw-shucks way in which he was manipulated by Red Wings' brass into taking lower wages despite being the game's most popular player; his struggles with support for a union dreamed up by linemate Ted Lindsay; and his slumming it for Amway and other undistinguished companies in his post-career life.
But if other players' humble personalities can sometimes come across as almost suspiciously grounded, Gordie Howe was the real thing. I know it sounds like a strange statement to make about someone whose fists were like granite and who liked to fight—even in the All-star Game against Mike Walton—and who would wait years to get even with a player before, in some cases, ending their careers with an elbow or blind-side hit or spear deep into the ribcage, but Gordie Howe was a nice man. At least he was to me.
The second time I met him was in Hong Kong while writing my second book. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life to be wandering through the junk markets of Sham Shui Po only to stumble upon Mr. Hockey and Colleen in the lobby of a nearby hotel. My wife, Janet, told Colleen that we were in Hong Kong travelling and writing a book and she said, "Oh, me and Gordie are writing a book, too!" Then we sat with them for a few hours.
Gordie talked about how poor they were growing up in Floral, Saskatchewan, (that the marauding giant came from a place called Floral mirrored something about him, too, I thought), how he'd only had one skate as a child before finally getting another (from his sister, I think), and how intimidating it was to suddenly be in Detroit and a thundering American metropolis after years down on the prairie farm. Then came more stories: winning the Stanley Cup, playing with his sons, competing in Russia with Team Canada in '74, Gretzky, and the type of man that Sid Abel was.
Years later, when our daughter was born, we gave her the middle name "Abel," because, my wife said, "a girl has to have a little bit of tough in her." My impressions of Sid were born on that day in Hong Kong through Gordie who, a few hours later, would take to the ice on a shopping mall rink and show 30 young Chinese kids how to take a wrist shot. He looked old then; ancient even. But that was 17 years ago. Only time could rob Gordie of his gifts, which, in the end, were so much more than simply playing the game of hockey, although he was a beautiful motherfucker at that, too.