Gordie Howe has a unique way of breaking the ice. Not that the man known as Mr. Hockey needs to introduce himself very often.
"Do you have a pen," he asked as he took a seat beside me at a charity reception a few months back. After giving him one, he removed the bar napkin from under his drink and proceeded to draw the number 3 on it. "Now watch this," he said.
With a few strokes of the pen, Howe turned the number into a drawing of a duck. He then penned the number 2 and turned it into a sketch of a swan. He wrote the number 8 and turned it into a snowman with a hat that looked more like a fat cowboy. "It can be a fat snowman cowboy if you want," he said.
Maybe it was because we were both bored, but I was fascinated by this timeless Hall of Famer turning numbers into cartoons, and he was more than happy to continue between signing autographs for fans.
"I can forge autographs, too," he said with a smile as he meticulously signed the names of former teammates Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel.
He then mixed it up by writing the number 4 next to the letter R and making that into a bird with the tip of the four acting as the beak. "I did that at first when I met kids. You tell them to draw a number and you'd put a head on it and give it back to them and they'd be happier than heck," said Howe, who also sketched his farmhouse in Saskatchewan, complete with the chimney and smoke coming out of it. "I got these hanging all over the dang wall."
The only thing that stopped his impromptu art show was the need to return home to be with his wife, Colleen, who was affectionately referred to as Mrs. Hockey. She was battling Pick disease, an incurable neurological form of dementia, which would soon take her life in March. Howe, who is still coping with the loss, recently launched the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Dementia Research, supporting patient outreach programs and clinical drug trials at Baycrest Academic Health Science Centre in Toronto.
I recently caught up with my artistic friend to take a stroll down memory lane.
SI.com: I was watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off the other day and your jersey was on the screen the whole time since Ferris' friend Cameron is wearing it. I was wondering if you knew that your jersey would be a part of the movie.
Howe: Oh yeah, I sent them the jersey. They asked me for the jersey and I sent it out. It was nice seeing the No. 9 on the big screen. I had a lot of proud moments in that jersey.
SI.com: I think you told me that you had your Hockey Hall of Fame jacket and ring stolen. How did that happen?
Howe: I don't know. I forget. Like everything else, you know, it's shown and out in the open and you let people touch it. I don't know if I weren't a young man and I got my hands on it that I wouldn't have swiped it, too. I just hope that the people that got it will relax and enjoy it as much as I would have. It's basically like all the trophies and awards I've gotten -- it's for my children and grandchildren to see.
SI.com: Do you still feel a strong connection to the current Detroit Red Wings?
Howe: Definitely. I was talking to Chris Chelios and if I played against him he'd be a dirty old man. He's 47 and he knows what it was like in the old days and you appreciate him. When he asked me if I would go to Chicago for a game, I went out of respect for him and what I saw him do. I always felt if you've given that much and you have a little more to burn, you should burn it off. I love Detroit. I helped put in a rink in Cadillac, Michigan, when my wife was very healthy. She helped them put it in and the rink is going full-bore the last time I was there. So, who knows? Maybe we might be responsible for putting kids in the NHL. If it wasn't Mrs. Howe, Marty and Mark Howe wouldn't have had ice to skate on, either.
SI.com: When I was in Detroit last, Chelios took the Stanley Cup to the rooftop of his bar, Cheli's Chili, and everyone was drinking out of it and girls were straddling it and Kid Rock even sat on it as he played the guitar. Did you ever do anything crazy like that with the Cup?
Howe: Well, yes and no. The only thing I remember is that I took it down to Toledo to show my family and in-laws and everything, and for some reason it disappeared for a while and I almost died. The kids had taken it to show it to someone else without telling me. It's not like now where a guy follows it around. I took it to a big banquet hall and I had to put it in the car and take it home and take it back to the rink the next day. It's been abused before when people wanted to show it off. It's been forgotten before in a parade where the person who was supposed to take care of it said the heck with it. It's gone missing, it's been damaged, it's been dropped. There's a lot of history there.
SI.com: Do you have any interesting stories about the octopus being thrown on the ice in Detroit?
Howe: The only good one is when it was thrown on the ice and I picked it up one time with my stick and threw it back. It's a tradition that been around forever. I think Chelios one time picked it up and put it on his head and skated around with it. I wouldn't touch that thing for anything. In the moment of happiness, I guess you're liable to do anything.
SI.com: You and Chris have something in common: you both can't seem to leave the game. You are the only player to have competed in the NHL in five different decades (1940s through '80s). What made you want to play for so long?
Howe: I just loved the game. I still miss it. I used to get heck when I was younger for sneaking a few pucks out and playing. When I look back, I learned so many things. When I think back to my linemates Sid and Ted on "The Production Line" and we led the league in scoring one-two-three. I remember when Sid was the captain, we'd sit in the room for a half hour talking about the next game coming up and he was like a coach's coach. You listened to him because you had so much respect for him. He gave everyone in the room a chance to talk. I learned so much about the game and grew to love it even more.
SI.com: What do you think of the NHL now when you watch games?
Howe: I think I'd have trouble playing in it. If you touch the guy with a stick, you get called. I like certain players like Chelios, if a guy's got him beat he gets him under the armpit and pulls him in. That's why I learned how to shoot with both hands. That helped me a lot.
SI.com: Speaking of old school hockey, what do you think of the good old Howe Hat Trick (a goal, assist and a fight)?
Howe: I don't know who named that. It could have been Bobby Hull. I started getting calls on it and I wondered what it was and someone in Detroit told me. I don't mind it. I think it's kind of funny.
SI.com: I'm guessing you like the Mr. Hockey nickname a little more that the Howe Hat Trick.
Howe: Oh, it's great. When I sign autographs I know what to put. It saves me a lot of time thinking of what to write. It's great. I think of Eddie Shore as Mr. Hockey and when I talked to him last, he said, "I had my use of it, it's all yours, have fun." Coming from a man like that, wow, that's amazing.
SI.com: I was talking to Chelios and he said that you guys were on a bus once and picked up a guitar and started playing. Are you a musician as well as an artist?
Howe: [Laughs] No, I'm not very good. My mother and dad played the fiddle and the guitar. I would sit on my mom's lap and I would pick up a few things. When we were playing in those Stanley Cup games, to take my mind off things, I'd flick it and most of the guys said, "What the heck is that?" I would play old songs and anything that came to my mind. I couldn't even tell you what the songs were.
SI.com: Is there anything you wish you could have done differently during your career?
Howe: There's always something in the game you wish you would have done different. That's why players improve, because they learn from what they did before. They might have been guessing before, but now they know. If a kid doesn't want to listen, there's not a dang thing you can do about it, but the players that listen will achieve and get better. I always try to talk to kids about the sport and what to do and not to do. No matter what you do, for heaven's sake, don't laugh when you make a mistake. Jesus, don't laugh especially if you get a goal scored against you.
SI.com: Finally, I recently saw a picture of you when you when you played that one shift with the Detroit Vipers in 1997 when you were almost 70 to become the only person to play professional hockey in a sixth decade. Did you have any second thoughts while you were getting ready to go out there?
Gordie: No, it was fun. They weren't big enough to hurt me anyways. Half the guys I was playing against, I knew and played against, so it wasn't like I was with strangers. I worked out with a lot of the kids on both teams and we were there to raise money. I remember one guy got out of line and I nailed the [guy]. I went over the bench and I said, "Get out line and we'll play accordingly, so I suggest you keep your damn mouth shut."
SI.com: I would imagine that was the last time you had to deal with that guy.
Howe: Yes, it was. He got the message.