One and only

Howe was made in Canada and played like it


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Everyone is sainted the day they die.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/06/2016 (2308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Everyone is sainted the day they die.

Our society’s need to deify the dead has its roots somewhere deep in our own frail humanity. We’re born alone, we die alone and we spend all the time in between trying to be slightly less alone.

That’s a rough ride for even the strongest among us and so it’s generally frowned upon to speak ill of the recently departed.

We all do our best, in enormously challenging circumstances.

But what gets lost today in the veneration we now do of the dead is an honest discussion of the flaws and frailties that are exactly what make great people so great. It’s precisely because we all battle the same demons and weaknesses, that it’s so notable when those among us rise to a level of greatness.

And yet when someone notable dies — clear for all to see all week in the gushing tributes that poured forth following the death of Muhammad Ali — we tend to airbrush the rough edges, excise the uncomfortable parts and elevate the “great” to the “greatest in the superlative culture in which we all now reside.

All of which brings us to the late, great Gordie Howe.

Friday’s announcement of the passing of Mr. Hockey is going to prompt an outpouring of tributes for the next week, celebrating the impact of a man who was both a great athlete and a great Canadian and whose life transcended sports to become a part of the cultural fabric of this country.

But let’s not kid ourselves, Gordie Howe was no saint. And that’s what we loved so much about him.

We all love Wayne Gretzky in this country, but I’d argue it is Howe who personified how we like to see ourselves as Canadians.

Where Gretzky was slick and fast, with a soft touch and an even softer pass, Howe was all lunch box and nails, the first one into a corner and the last to leave, a trail of bent rules and broken bones in his wake.

Gretzky grew up near Toronto, Howe grew up on the Prairies. That’s not a coincidence.

In a country that was carved out of the bush, Howe used his elbows to carve out his own little corner in our national identity.

A consummate gentleman off the ice, he was an unrepentant bully on it. There is right and there is wrong. And then there is what you can get away with. Howe was a master of that category, pushing the limits of hacking, slashing, elbowing and grabbing to their maximum advantage.

He’d have had a hard time in today’s game, I think. He’d have still been a great player and goal scorer, no question. But there’d have also been a lot of supplemental discipline and a well-trodden path back and forth from the league head office.

His signature, the Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight in a single game — was always a rarity, but it has become almost unheard of in today’s NHL. For starters, hardly anyone fights anymore. And the handful who do still fight almost never have the skill necessary to also put a couple of points up on the board in a game in which goals are few and far between.

Howe’s death will have a particular resonance here in Winnipeg, whose hockey fans had a special relationship with the man who wore No. 9 for four seasons in the mid-’70s with the WHA’s Houston Aeros.

The original Winnipeg Jets were also, of course, a part of the WHA back then, and in a small league, Howe and the Aeros were frequent visitors to the old Winnipeg Arena and fierce rivals of the Jets.

Which brings me to a story. You’re going to be reading lots of “Here’s what Gordie Howe means to me” stories over the next week. Most will be self-indulgent and unnecessary.

This one probably is too, but bear with me — I have a point. For once.

Back in the ’70s, my sister had a boyfriend who had Jets season tickets located at ice level next to the visitors’ bench.

I will leave the boyfriend’s name out of this to protect the, well… if not entirely innocent, at least the never convicted. He dated my sister. That’s punishment enough for one lifetime.

There wasn’t an aisle or even a sheet of glass between the visitors bench and those seats (we used to lean over between periods and steal rolls of tape). And the group of guys who sat in that section every game took full advantage of the uncommon intimacy they had with visiting teams to loudly share their views on the players’ abilities, their wives, their physical appearance and just about any other scab they could pick at.

It was the ’70s. It was vile. It was eye-opening. It was hilarious.

DOUG BALL / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Gordie Howe (left) finds a little elbow room while playing for the New England Whalers against Quebec Nordiques forward Curt Brackenbury in 1978.

And, upon reflection now, it was Slapshot.

A particular target of abuse one night was Howe’s son Marty, who was a serviceable defenceman but was on the Aeros roster in those days mostly because he was part of a package deal that saw his dad and his vastly more talented brother Mark also playing for Houston.

The men in the first couple of rows in Section 29 rode Marty relentlessly from the opening faceoff until about midway through the second period.

Taking advantage of a line change, Gordie — in one seamless motion — jumped over the boards while simultaneously applying a vicious two-hander with his stick to the forearm of my sister’s boyfriend, which had been resting on the divider separating the bench from the seats.

I was maybe eight years old that night and I vividly remember three things about that moment.

I remember a huge and ugly welt immediately filling with blood on my sister’s boyfriend’s forearm.

I remember the sound of that slash sounding like a gun shot.

And I remember the men sitting in the first couple of rows in Section 29 got real quiet all of a sudden. And stayed that way for the rest of the game. About Marty, about everything else.

That was Gordie Howe. He could have ignored the abuse that night. He could have had a security guard summoned to mute the mob.

But Howe wasn’t the type to tell the teacher. Or the ref. He took matters in his own hands — a father defending his son but, mostly, a captain defending his teammate.

I got the feeling in hearing stories about Howe in his later years that he’d have done the same thing today if presented with the same circumstances. In Gordie’s Howe’s world — and that of all our fathers — there were few conflicts that couldn’t be solved with a good old-fashioned two-hander. And then a shared drink afterward to laugh about it.

Howe would be crucified for slashing a fan today, of course. Every highlight show on every network and website would dissect that slash in slow-motion. Howe wouldn’t come off looking very good. In any circumstances it’d be tough to justify slashing a member of the paying public.

But I feel safe in saying that back then the men sitting in the first couple of rows in section 29 thought more of Howe for that slash, not less.

Times have changed. I’m not convinced it’s been entirely for the better.

Gordie Howe a saint? Don’t make me laugh.

Just a damn good Canadian.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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