by pcoffey on 02/02/12 at 04:49 PM ET
The news that George Malik posted on Gordie Howe Thursday was like a shock to the system. After all, we’re talking about “Mr. Hockey” here, a man who played into his 50s and who always was tough as nails. Talk about making the rest of us question our mortality! If something like dementia can impact Gordie Howe, cripes the rest of us are in sorry shape!
Over the course of my time spent as a newspaper, magazine and web site writer and editor, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Gordie and Colleen Howe and it is no exaggeration to say I enjoyed every moment. When you spent some time with the Howes, you knew you were in the midst of hockey greatness, but what made it so special was there were no aires, no PR flaks pushing people away. You were with regular folks, and you always smiled.
Here are a couple of examples.
Sometime in the late 1980s (Look, I’m 54 and can’t remember much of anything anymore either) a hockey card promoter brought together as many of the NHL’s 500 goal scorers as possible for a show in Atlantic City. Thinking this would be a tremendous chance to interview a virtual wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, I did some horse trading with the promoter. My guys and I would send out a series of press releases to drum up attendance for the show. In exchange, we got access to speak with the players and write stories.
Work commitments kept me away from the first day of the show, but as I rounded the corner to where the players were hanging out, here comes Gordie and Colleen. “Well, it’s about time you got here!” was Gordie’s greeting, which about knocked me on the floor since I couldn’t figure out how Gordie Howe knew a two-bit writer type like me. My girlfriend had come along this particular day and she and Colleen immediately hit it off as Gordie and one of the guys from my group haggled over coffee.
Seems the players were all in a room by themselves signing various prints, sticks, cards and the like and were left to their own devices. My colleague Jerry Burke, always the most resourceful guy in the room, saw the need and became their “go-to guy” getting info on where they were supposed to go, ordering lunch, and getting stuff like coffee.
“You own me a buck and a half for that coffee, Gordie”
“Like you have a chance of ever seeing that, kid!”
No one ever stopped smiling. Good, good times.
My biggest regret in hockey came at Madison Square Garden during the 1994 All-Star Game. Back then, there was an alumni game and Gordie was playing. The alumni had a skate at the Garden the day of the event and I was standing off to the side organizing my notebook as the alumni came off the ice.
“Nice sweater,” I heard someone say, but I wasn’t paying attention.
“Nice sweater,” I heard again, but was still oblivious.
Then the front of said sweater was engulfed by this hockey glove, a glove that was attached to Gordie Howe.
“Oh, hi Gordie,” I offered.
“That’s a real nice sweater, where did you get it?”
“Ah, Mom ...”
“Is that a store around here?”
“Ah, no. My Mom gave it to me for Christmas.”
“Nice sweater.” And with that Gordie smiled and trundled off to the dressing room.
Now someone who thought fast on his feet would have come up with the idea of swapping said sweater from Mom to Gordie for his Heroes of Hockey jersey. But that someone sure wasn’t me (Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!), although the exchange is one of my most cherished memories.
A few years back, the NHL brought the greats from the Detroit Red Wings together during the Stanley Cup Final for a night of reminiscing. Both nights were unforgettable, not only because you heard from Gordie, Ted Lindsay, Marcel Pronovost and other Hall of Famers, but because you heard stories that might have been deleted by others in our now politically correct world.
At the Red Wings get-together, Ted Lindsay was, how shall we say? ... blunt ... in his hatred of the Canadiens. He was sitting next to Pronovost and everytime he would say something about “those damned Frenchmen,” he would turn to Pronovost and say “Sorry Marc.” Pronovost’s reply? “No problem, Ted.” It became a running gag.
It was at the media availability prior to the dinner that I first noticed Gordie’s memory wasn’t as clear as it had been in the past, but he was still Gordie Howe and everyone left with a smile on their face.
The NHL.com crew was sitting together that night and one of our producers, Darryl Haberman, was sitting next to me talking to one of the guys across the table when Gordie came up behind him, stuck his fingers in Darryl’s ribs and said “Hey, is this guy giving you trouble?” We were all crying laughing and “Habes” was left to remark “Holy cow, Gordie Howe just burned me!”
And he smiled.
But then again, we all have smiled around the great Gordie Howe.
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About Iced Coffey
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.