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PITTSBURGH – When you’re a child of the late 1970s, there are three different kinds of sports legends.
There are the ones who you grow up with, that you feel are your generation’s legends, ones you can touch and speak with if so blessed. Michael Jordan was like that for me. So was Jaromir Jagr.
There are the ones that maybe you didn’t see in their absolute prime for a variety of reasons – like the age at which you found a love of sports, or because of the limitations of television – but still saw enough to register their greatness. I missed Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers years, but reveled in seeing him in the 1990s. Nolan Ryan was always a Texas Ranger for me.
Then there the ones you did book reports on. That your father would spin tales about. That always would top the countdown lists on ESPN Classic. That existed in theory and in legend for you, because you were never able to watch them compete – a plaque in the Hall of Fame, a name uttered in hushed tones, a standard that was nearly impossible for a modern athlete to replicate.
Gordie Howe was a “book report” player for me.
He was Babe Ruth. He was Jim Brown. He was Joe Louis. He was a sports god.
And I once had the honor of shaking the hand of god.
He was making an appearance in Raleigh during All-Star Weekend, working with a hockey card company. I saw him in the lobby of a hotel. Gordie was decidedly “hockey famous” in Carolina – just another old guy in a suit for the non-believers, but god-incarnate for the puckheads.
I worked up the courage to speak with him, because one must work up the courage to speak to GORDIE FLIPPIN’ HOWE. I walked over, introduced myself and shook his hand.
You often hear the phrase “hand of god,” but you really never understand it until you shake the hand of Gordie Howe. It was about the size of throw-pillow. He could palm a Volkswagen. His wrists were the circumference of a telephone pole.
It was at that moment that you believed one punch from those ham-hocks could break your face or, sparing that, perhaps the space-time continuum …
Look at this man:
I’m not even sure I’m a member of the same species.
As I walked away from Gordie, I member feeling like I had just met Abe Lincoln. Or Walt Disney. Or some other name that you’d read about in a school library book. There was an odd feeling of accomplishment despite it having just been a fleeting moment: I met Gordie Howe.
What I loved about Gordie as a player – besides his name, which was as Canadian as a Mountie eating a beaver-tail in Regina – was that he played the game so viciously.
He was not New Testament Hockey God; he was fire and brimstone Hockey God. "Keep your stick on the ice because that's where the puck is. Keep your elbows high because that's where the other guy is,” he said infamously.
The idea that the best offensive player in the world could also be its meanest S.O.B. is unfathomable in the modern era, like if you could somehow mash-up Sidney Crosby and vintage Milan Lucic. He led with his elbows. And his stick. He was merciless. And he would never, ever forget if you got one over on him or a teammate – rest assured, the pain would arrive the next the teams played.
Could the most gifted player in the NHL today ever be described in these terms:
"Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe that is calculatingly and primitively savage," Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964. "He is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice."
He did it to protect himself, he did it to create space so he could excel offensively. And of course, he did it because of his often-stated “religion” as a player: “It is better to give than to receive,” Howe would joke.
Again, my generation didn’t exactly watch him on the ice. My generation had the same cultural touchstones for Gordie. Like this one:
And this one:
But also this one, as Howe’s legend as The Guy Who Played For The Whalers In His 50s was as synonymous with him as any record:
(Seriously, we go nuts over Jaromir Jagr and Howe scored 15 goals as a 51-year-old.)
And of course, the Gordie Howe Hat Trick, which was hilarious in that Howe never achieved many of them himself (goal, assist, fight).
But the most prominent touchstone, the thing that kept Gordie Howe’s name in every conversation in every hockey bar in every week in every year:
Who was the best player of all-time?
Gordie vs. Wayne vs. Bobby.
Bobby? “When it comes to who was the best hockey player ever, don’t even go there with me,” Orr told writer Bill Dow. “There is no question that Gordie is the best of all time.”
Wayne? "He is, he was, he will always be the greatest of all time,” said Gretzky.
To the other legends in that constantly simmering debate, there’s only one answer: Mr. Hockey is the greatest of all-time.
Today, we worship at the altar of a Hockey God, as we shall for ages to come.
Rest in peace. Gordie.
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