SAN JOSE — This is a time for mourning and sadness but also for stories, and few figures in the NHL tell those better than executive Brian Burke. Currently the president of hockey operations for the Flames, formerly of Hartford, Vancouver, Anaheim, Toronto and the league’s front office, Burke spoke with SI for an unrelated topic Saturday afternoon and agreed to share some memories about the late Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.
“It’s just staggering to the hockey community to lose giants like that,” Burke said over the phone from Calgary. “I was talking to Doug Barkley, who played with Gordie. He said, ‘They’re getting a pretty good team up there. They’ve got [Jean] Beliveau last year, Gordie this year, there’s a pretty good team up there. I’m getting choked up just talking about it. It’s a sad day for the hockey community to lose someone that was that big a part of everything.”
What follows are Burke’s words, lightly edited for clarity:
1. The Hair
“When I first took over in Hartford, Gordie was on the payroll there as a goodwill ambassador. And I asked him, I said, ‘We should sit down and talk about your role.’
“He came into my office. He sat opposite my desk. He leaned over to the left and leaned over to the right, way over. Like peering. I thought he was looking behind me, so I turn and look, see if there’s something in the window or something. I turn back around and I said, ‘Is something wrong, Mr. Howe?’
“And he keeps leaning each way. Finally he goes, ‘Does your barber charge you by the f---ing acre?’ I changed it to g—d---- for the media. That’s how our meeting started. I’ve got such a big head and such thick hair. F---, I laughed.”
2. The Elk and the Concrete
“If you look at pictures of Gordie Howe, any picture you see of him, except when he’s on the ice, he’s always smiling. I’d met him before. It was a great thrill. I met him and went to a payphone and called my wife and told her, you’re not going to believe it, I just met Gordie Howe. I didn’t want to wash my hand. He’s always smiling. It’s such a paradox, this vicious hockey player and this kind man.
“He loved to tell stories. He said, ‘One time I was driving to northern Saskatchewan, and I heard an elk run across the road. And I thought, Elk don’t run unless they have to. So I’m thinking, I stop my car, turn off the engine, I’m going to wait a minute, see why those elk are all running. Sure enough, about 50 yards behind here comes Mr. Cougar, trotting along.’
“And he’s telling me about growing up on the farm. There’s a great story in his book, about how his dad got him a job about the concrete plant. And the guy told Gordie, ‘Alright move these 50-pound bags of concrete, and stack them over here.’ About 10 minutes later, Gordie came up and said, ‘Alright, what do I do now?’ And the guy said, ‘No, I said stack them all.’ Each guy would struggle with a 50-pound bag of cement. Gordie picked up one in each hand. And if you’ve ever picked up a bag of concrete, it’s impossible to grip it, unless you have a bone-crushing grip. It’s impossible to grab a bag of concrete by the side and carry two at once and that’s what he did.
3. The Blinks
Ted Lindsay told me one. Gordie, he blinked like every 10 seconds or so. He’d take a real deep blink, and it was from when he fractured his skull. When you first meet him, you’re like what is this? Then you realize it’s just this little affliction. So he blinked like once every 10 seconds. So Ted Lindsay told me this story, he said they were lining up for a faceoff against Chicago and they dropped the puck and Gordie speared the guy opposite him right in the groin, and they had to carry him off.
“And Teddy said to Gordie, ‘What the hell was that for?’
“Gordie said, ‘He was mocking me, he was blinking at me.’
“And Teddy says, ‘He’s got the same thing you do, you a—h---!’”
4. The Blindside
“Then he told me this story, his first or second year in the league, he said he was playing in Toronto, and Eddie Shack’s playing opposite him. Eddie said, Look, I don’t want a rough game tonight, so you lay off me and I lay off you.’
“Puck goes down to the corner, and Gordie’s got a chance to hit Eddie Shack and Gordie lays off, just kind of rubs him. We go back down to Gordie’s corner and Eddie almost kills him. Of course Gordie wasn’t ready for the hit so he got crumpled. He skates back to Shack and goes, ‘What the hell was that? And he goes, ‘You believed me?’
“People ask me all the time: Who’s the greatest hockey player you ever saw? And I didn’t get to see Gordie in his prime, obviously, but he’s in the discussion all the time. There’s guys with way more points, but there was no played as productive as Gordie Howe who was as feared as Gordie Howe. He was a ferocious hockey player. This is the guy who did it all. He could kill you with a body check, he could beat you with a goal, he could beat you in a fight. He was a ferocious hockey player. People were nervous when he was on the ice.
“So you look at the other great players, and the discussion usually hinges on a half-dozen or so—Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky. But Gordie was in a class by himself. The only guy to have been truly feared in the group was Gordie. He was a true North American-style player, quintessential Canadian power forward before anyone used that term. Just a great human being. So family oriented, such a nice man. He had time for everybody. Everybody.”
5. The Dinner
“I remember I was working at the NHL and [commissioner Gary Bettman] said to me, ‘We don’t have a good enough relationship with the icons, so we want to reach out to some of these guys and bring them in.’
“I was like, ‘Alright, what a cool job this is.’ So I called Gordie and said I’d like to come and visit, so he said, ‘Why don’t you come down to Florida, see me and [his wife] Colleen?’
“So I called Mark Howe, I said, ‘Are you sure this is okay?’ And he said, ‘You got invited to Florida? Geez they don’t bring anyone down there. Gordie must like you.’ He says they don’t invite anyone down there except family. So I said, woah, now the pressure’s on.
SI VAULT: Wings of the Red Wings (3/18/57)
“So we go for a walk on the beach. We’re walking on the beach, and it was like walking on the beach with a pope. He couldn’t take 10 steps without stopping. Hi Mr Howe. Can you take a picture? Can you sign this for my son? We were out there for an hour and we couldn’t have walked 200 yards. He said, ‘Well, we better go back.’
“So we go back and I said to Colleen, ‘Open checkbook, I’m taking you out for dinner, where do you want to go?’ And Colleen said Long John Silvers. I said, ‘Colleen, the commissioner will kill me if I take you to Long John Silvers.’ And she said, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ And you didn’t argue with Colleen. I said okay.
“I called Bettman after. He asked how it had gone. I said, ‘One of the best days of my life. I got to hang around with Gordie Howe.’ He said, ‘Where’d you take them for dinner?’ I said Long John Silvers. He said, ‘Have you lost your mind? I send you down there to make this guy feel good, and you take him to Long John Silvers?’ I said, ‘Gary, that’s what Colleen wanted. You can’t argue with Colleen Howe.’”
6. The Lunch
“One day he was in Vancouver on business. He called me on my cell on a Saturday and said ‘I’ve got an event tonight, but if you’re not busy why don’t you come down and we’ll shoot the breeze for an hour?’
“So he told me where to go. I brought my wife with me. Gordie wasn’t there when we got there, so we sat with Colleen. And Colleen was a great lady too. So we’re just talking to Colleen until Gordie walks in. Took him 20 minutes to get to the table. Every booth he stops. Hello, how are you. Shook hands. Signed some autographs. Took him 20 minutes.
“So he sits down. I was just tongue-tied around him. They’re talking and at one point Colleen said something and Gordie corrected her. And Colleen put her little hand … Gordie had big hands, eh? He had hands like dinner plates. And Colleen put her little hand on top of Gordie’s two big hands and said ‘Hunny, I told you, don’t ever disagree with me in public.’”
Here Burke laughs. Actually, he laughed after all of them.
7. The Party
“He came to my Stanley Cup party unannounced. He was in Vancouver on business, and I’m sitting there, and in walks Gordie Howe. And I’m like, ‘holy Christ.’
“So [after the Ducks won in 2007] the Stanley Cup was there, and there were two kids looking at it. They didn’t see him. Gordie walked up, put his arm around each of their shoulders and they looked up and saw it was Gordie and their jaws dropped. He said, ‘Hey, I can stand here, my name’s on there, let me show you.’ And he showed them his name on the Cup.
“So then he says, ‘Come on. Are you okay with me being here? I wasn’t invited.’ I said, ‘Mr. Howe, you’re welcome anywhere in the hockey world at any time.’ He said, ‘Come here, let’s sit and talk some hockey.’ So we went in the back booth for an hour. We just talked hockey, telling stories. I would’ve stayed there all night. Finally my wife said, ‘You’ve got 200 guests here, you know?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m talking to Gordie Howe. They can all wait.’”