John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer
Jan 25, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
Gordie Howe has one piece of advice for aspiring young hockey players, or for anyone contemplating doing anything: Don't do it if you don't love it!
That was Howe's answer when asked which of the 1950s dynastic NHL teams was better, his Detroit Red Wings that won four Stanley Cups in six years or the 1956-60 Montreal Canadiens that won five-straight Stanley Cups.
"How would I know?" Howe said. "I never saw myself or my teammates play. I'm no judge. I didn't play the game to be called the best or be the leading scorer. I played because I loved it and I loved to win and I was lucky to play with others who felt the same way and we won a few championships."
It had been a few years since we talked to Gordie, now 79 and 27 years removed from his last NHL appearance with the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers, at age 52.
Gordie's heart was broken and we all felt heartbroken for him a few years ago when his Colleen, a wonderful wife, mother and business manager, was struck silent by Pick's Disease, that in some ways mimics Alzheimer's Disease, which doctors originally thought was the problem.
"I couldn't talk about it before," Howe said. "You know me, if I can add humor to a situation, that's what I try to do. But the severity of her illness hit me like a spear in the groin. I couldn't speak if asked about it. I'd just hold my hand up to stop the other person.
"To think they used to write that I'm a tough SOB," Howe mused. "This relaxed me, maybe not the right word, took a lot of the fire away. All I know is that our youngest son is a doctor and has been able to help us. I'm just praying for the day there's a progression of how to treat this illness.
"It's definitely not well known or understood. There's a ton of it going on but until recent years, some people that had Pick's Disease, their doctors didn't realize it. Their problems were tagged Alzheimer's. One thing I've noticed is that Alzheimer's patients seem to have more of a temper, probably due to frustration. Colleen doesn't have that. But sometimes she breathes hard then shuts up and it scares the hell out of me."
Howe reflected on the pride he has in his children, not just the hockey players, Mark and Marty, but all of his kids, and their kids.
"I got credit for a lot of things she made happen," Gordie said. "She is very creative and did a hell of a lot for the family."
Mark Howe, who played forward in the NHL and WHA with his dad, and then became one of the NHL's all-time best defensemen, recently helped rearrange Gordie's business arrangements in the wake of his mother's illness. Marty Howe manages the business operations and Mark's son, Travis, an excellent hockey teacher, has moved into his grandparent's Detroit-area home to lend a hand.
No one who knows them likes to think about Gordie getting older and Colleen struggling with illness but it's reality an it's good to know they're joined by caring loved ones in their home. Travis and Gordie get along great, which generally means a continual stream of busting on each other.
"Hey, if Gordie's having fun talking hockey, he can get to rambling," Travis warned. "I know you're working and have to get things done so don't be afraid to break in and cut him off."
"Hey Travis, to you, Gordie's grandpa, there everyday. To the hockey world, he was the best player in the NHL for a long time and it's leading scorer for a long, long time." I told him. "If Gordie's telling stories and having a good time, everyone in hockey wants to know that. He's got the floor for a long time."
Later, Gordie made me pay for the fawning comment. He always had that way of waiting, waiting and then avenging a slash or a hook or a spear.
Nobody got the best of Gordie Howe.
Mark said Gordie had been getting out to Red Wings' practices and enjoying hockey again, but Gordie said not recently.
"I don't get to watch hockey as much as I'd like or get on the blades as much since Colleen got sick," he said, then joked, "Besides, I'd lose my help at home if I took advantage of Travis. Right now, I'd rather be home with Colleen than at any game I ever saw."
This was a rare glimpse into the serious side of Gordie Howe, a guy who'd rather tease you, hilariously insult you or give you a noogie. The call started with Gordie in top form:
"John McGourty, NHL.com," I answered
"John McGourty, NHL.com, John McGourty, NHL.com. Damn McGourty, what's happened to you? You've gone corporate. Well, at least you found work, lucky to get it too, in your case."
So what are you up to, Gordie?
"I'd heading down to Dallas this weekend to see my kids and grandkids in Texas, then I'm going to the NHL All-Star Game in Dallas," he said. "I've got two fake knees from banging bone on bone but I'm walking OK now and feeling good. I'm making a couple of appearances, signing some autographs and I've got some interviews scheduled.
"I really like the changes the NHL made last year," Howe added. "I've got a lot of respect for these kids. The game is quicker than in my day, some of it for obvious reasons. Back then, we had to pass out of our zone to a teammate this side of the red line before moving further down ice. Now, you can pass the length of the rink. The speed is there but they took some of the fun out because you can't hit anyone anymore.
"The changes were good because they allowed the smaller man to play the game again. I like that but if I was a goalie, I'd hate the changes. Players are getting in on them quicker now. Lloyd Percival said the puck moves 60 feet in a second so if a shooter gets in to within 30 feet, all a goalie can do is guess, right or wrong. And, his sight lines are often blocked. He can't move four sets of legs out of his way and make a save. The defensemen can't move bodies out the way they used to.
"The boys are still getting bigger. I was in the top five in the NHL at 205 pounds. That's average now."
Howe said one thing from his era that he'd like to see return is consideration among the players for each other.
"We'd go to hit a player who was handling the puck, and this was especially true along the boards, and just before we'd get there, we'd yell a warning and then deliver the check, sticks down. I'd done my job because the puck was passed or knocked down the boards. Harry Watson taught me that when I was young.
"Harry was also from Saskatchewan and he got me invited to a charity game for Air Force families when I was 14. I scored a goal against Turk Broda; a 14-year-old kid scoring on an NHL goaltender. How about that? Turk was aware of me because he knew my five sisters. After the game, he said, 'We'll see you in the NHL.' My first NHL game was against Toronto and again I scored on Broda. He looked at me and said, "I told you you'd be here." My first game and it's one of my career highlights to think someone of that stature would remember me."
Howe said one thing hasn't changed about the NHL.
"It still looks like a lot of fun to be out there on the ice," he said. "It has to be fun and you can't be afraid to make mistakes. You can tell which ones are afraid.