SAN JOSE, Calif. – Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford remembered Gordie Howe, the player and the person, on Saturday, one day after the hockey icon died at the age of 88.
Rutherford was a 21-year-old rookie goaltender when he broke in with the Detroit Red Wings during the 1970-71 NHL season. By that point, Howe was 42-years-old and owned a Hall of Fame resume featuring four Stanley Cups rings, 20 All-Star Game appearances, six scoring titles, six Hart Trophies and 763 goals.
For as big as Howe’s presence was within the game, Rutherford recalled that “Mr. Hockey” wasn’t just a great player, but also a tremendous teammate.
“Of course, your first year in the league is exciting enough, but when you enter that room with such a great player like him it was special,” Rutherford said. “He was a guy that in some ways was hard to describe. He just had a special way about him. As a teammate and you looked around the room, if somebody was struggling with something, in his own way he’d go by and say something to him. [It] might not be long and he may not say ‘Hey, do you want to go somewhere and talk?’ He’d walk by and kind of catch you from behind; he’d give you a little poke or a little elbow and he’d say a few words, which meant a lot. His character and his leadership were second to none.”
One memory that sticks out for Rutherford was later in his career when he returned to the Red Wings after two and a half seasons with the Penguins and the organization wanted to forbid him from taking a few days to attend the funeral of his grandfather.
On his own, Rutherford decided to leave the team to pay his respects. Upon returning to Detroit, Howe was the first person to come up and tell him he made the right decision. “He was right there to support me,” he said.
Another one Rutherford won’t forget was his first NHL game in his hometown of Toronto.
“My first game in Maple Leaf Gardens – I grew up in North Toronto so that’s what a kid looks forward to – I got pulled after the first period, gave up three goals, we were losing 3-0. Again, he was the first guy in between periods to come over and say it’s okay. But it really wasn’t okay because we ended up losing 13-0,” he recalled with a laugh.
Howe didn’t become a great hockey player by luck. He worked at his craft and the results came. A lot of that work came during practice. Rutherford, who wasn’t a fan of practice, didn’t forget just how serious Howe took it.
“He practiced the way he played games. He played for keeps. He was trying to score all the time,” he said. “It was a hard, heavy shot, but probably didn’t hit me very much, it went by me.”
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