With all the information available these days, I took an unexpected detour in my review and analysis of the NHL rosters as they take shape with training camps looming. No Twitter or Facebook for me this past weekend as I perused a book sent to me about Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe.
The book is titled Nine: A Salute to Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe by Bob Duff and it's a collection of quotes and stories chronicling the life and times of his inimitable career. My first impression was how times have changed -- not so from a hockey standpoint, but from an information perspective.
Young fans today have point-and-click access to all they need to know about their current heroes. Thumbing through Nine, I recalled reading and re-reading a book on my hero, Roger Crozier. I checked it out of the school library ten times or so -- a self-proclaimed record way back in the third grade. My point being: information was scarce, hard to come by, and certainly not as timely as it is today.
Way back when, I gleaned info on players from newspapers, Sunday paper magazines and, of course, the back of my precious hockey card collection. I cut pictures out of Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, keeping a scrapbook of all the cool goalie photos I could find. Nine has plenty of candid photos that kept me turning the pages, just like when I was a wide-eyed kid.
Don't get me wrong. I'm as enamored with and engulfed by the information age as anyone. But in going through the book on Howe's legacy, the sense of immersion in discovery was uplifting even though I was familiar with much of the story -- from Howe's crash into the boards during the 1949 Stanley Cup Final against Toronto to his infamous fight with Rangers tough guy Lou Fontinato to playing in the WHA with sons Mark and Marty for the Houston Aeros, to skating in the NHL at the age of 51 in his record 26th campaign before his retirment at the age of 52. Yet, I came away with so much more insight due to details. Like why Howe retired in 1971 after 25 seasons with the Red Wings. Ned Harkness was the new coach and he experimented with Howe on defense, Howe missed 15 games with a bad wrist and change was in the air.
According to Howe, "I didn't enjoy myself at all that last year. They were talking changes and I figured who they were thinking of changing."
The quotes -- not just first impressions or experiences, which are numerous and telling -- are priceless. From the Maple Leafs' Hall of Fame defenseman Teeder Kennedy, who passed away last week and involved in Howe's horrendous 1949 crash: "I stepped aside and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. I'll take an oath that to the best of my knowledge, my stick didn't touch Howe."
Or Howe, years later on not being able to return for that Cup Final due to his injuries that included a severe concussion: "I enjoyed my first three Stanley Cups. I don't remember much about the first one, though."
Then there is Fontinato, who landed in the hospital after taking on Howe: "He needn't think he's Jack Dempsey just because he put me here." To which "the best all around hockey player in the game" responded, "I come to play hockey, not to fight."
This from the man who was so tender and giving as hockey's great ambassador off the ice and so ruthless and "giving" on the ice, whether it was with an elbow, fist or stick. There are countless anecdotes of Howe exhibiting belligerence on the ice, and they are counterbalanced by an equal number of recollections of his benevolence off it. He was an idol to many, including Wayne Gretzky, who recounts meeting Howe, playing with and against him, and getting advice that he took to heart as he himself became one of the greatest players and ambassadors the game has ever seen.
Yet, Mario Lemieux may have summed it up best by saying, "Gordie Howe always will be Mr. Hockey. His combination of skill, toughness, leadership and competitive fire inspired an entire generation of players, who tried to live up to the standards he set."
So true, but I will take it further. When I think "tough all around player" on the ice graced with humility off of it, the Howe ideal is alive and well today. There may be, as Adam Graves says in Nine, "only one Mr. Hockey" but his presence is still felt.
It just took an old school source -- a book -- to remind me.
Arash Markazi:Talking with Mr. Hockey (05.15.09)
SI Vault:Gordie Howe & Company (01.14.55)