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Not Howe... why?: Winnipeg-shot story about beloved hockey legend misses the net by a mile

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Among Canadians of a certain vintage, it would be considered nigh on sacrilegious to say anything bad about Gordie Howe.

He was -- and still is, for many -- Mr. Hockey, after all. The best of his generation, blessed with a combination of size, skill, strength, sharp-elbowed nastiness and Saskatchewan-bred humility. An ambassador for his sport, and an eternal hero in his homeland.

So let's get this right up front: I love and respect Gordie Howe just as much as any other puck-loving Canuck who grew up in the latter half of the last century. No disrespect to The Great One or Sid the Kid, but ol' No. 9 will always be my Mr. Hockey.

Which brings us to the CBC movie Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, a shot-in-Winnipeg drama that airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on the public broadcaster. Despite the undisputed hockey greatness of the person it seeks to profile, it is not a stellar movie.

Let's just say this Mr. Hockey is never going to end up in anyone's Hall of Fame.

After its back-to-back successes with two dramas based on the life and career of player-turned-coach-turned-commentator Don Cherry (both of which were also shot here), CBC no doubt figured a movie about Howe -- an immeasurably better player and, unlike Grapes, the subject of universal adoration -- would be a can't-miss proposition.

Well, it turns out you can miss if you don't have a workable script or an interesting story to tell.

The problems start with the title, which turns out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch tactic. Folks tuning in with the idea that something called Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story would tell the story of Howe's life, or at least provide a look back at his NHL achievements as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, will be sorely disappointed.

Mr. Hockey, as written by Malcolm MacRury and directed by Andy Mikita, doesn't begin its story until after Howe (portrayed by Michael Shanks) has retired from the Red Wings after a career that spanned from 1946-47 to 1970-71.

Unlike the Don Cherry biopics, which were filled with flashbacks to various early portions of their subject's career, Mr. Hockey basically ignores most of Howe's significant hockey accomplishments and focuses on a single year -- the 1973-74 season, in which Howe made the leap to the fledgling World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros to play alongside sons Mark and Marty (Dylan Playfair, Andy Herr).

One can only speculate whether the film's makers thought Howe's broader career was uninteresting, or simply decided it was better to focus on a smaller, more manageable story for ease-of-scriptwriting purposes. The end result, whatever the motivation for its direction, is more like an extended footnote to an as-yet-untold story rather than a worthy exploration of a great hockey life.

And lacking, as it does, any real narrative momentum, Mr. Hockey quickly begins to feel like an exercise in which the wardrobe and prop departments were instructed to go as far over the top as possible in outfitting every scene with '70s-kitsch clothing, colour schemes and costume-party wigs.

Shanks and co-star Kathleen Robertson, who plays Gordie's wife and manager, Colleen Howe, offer an earnest effort at playing the Howes as a couple united by love and determined to give their kids the best life possible. But there's just not much, script-wise, with which they can work.

The on-ice aspects of Mr. Hockey are reduced to cartoonish silliness, and the at-home sequences are mostly just boring. The Howes, as portrayed here, are pretty nice folks who don't do anything all that controversial or interesting.

And maybe that's the problem: during a lifetime of being Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe has pretty much always been regarded as a very nice, very polite, very soft-spoken gentleman of hockey. He has been a pleasure to observe, but the creators of this movie were unable to turn his story -- or even a small, after-the-fact snippet of it -- into an engaging TV drama.

One might best describe this effort by putting a reverse spin on the title of No. 9's much-beloved 1963 instructional book for kids:

Mr. Hockey: Here's Not Howe. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 G1

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