The Gordie Howe I Remember

Hockey filled my eight-year-old mind with wonder and possibility. Pictures of NHL players filled my bedroom walls. They posed as gladiators, armed and with the power of savage youth just behind their eyes. While there were many among them, one had a shrine – my hero – Gordie Howe.

Every winter my Dad flooded our backyard. It was the best rink the world, my little world anyway. It boasted boards and nets and benches and even lights for skating past bedtime. The neighbourhood kids gathered every afternoon after school and all weekend to become the players on our walls. I was always Gordie Howe. I had a number 9 Red Wings jersey, red pants and red socks. It was Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater; a generation later and a province over.

me as Gordie Howe

(the author on his rink)

Gordie Howe was MVP 6 times and on the All Star team an astounding 22 times. He was a top 5-goal scorer for 20 consecutive seasons and amassed 801 goals. He was his own enforcer. A Gordie Howe hat trick remains a game with a goal, assist, and a fight. Off the ice, however, he was a gentle, shy, ambassador for the game and epitome of how one should wear celebrity. He often took sticks and pucks to hospitals where he visited children to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He never told the media. He did not do it because it would look good; he did it because it was good.

One day my Dad took me to an NHL charity golf tournament. We wandered a little until, oh my goodness there he was, and then, well, after that I really don’t remember. Mr. Howe rubbed my head and asked, “Do you play hockey?” I apparently looked up but could say nothing. Not a word. Mr. Howe asked, “What position do you play son?” I swallowed hard and I guess my lips moved but again not a word. I grinned for a picture with the clenched-fist excitement of an eight-year-old who, for him, had just met the equivalent of God, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

Gordie Howe has died. He’s gone. But for those of my generation he will always be young and strong: a giant of a player and honourable man. And a part of me will always be that skinny kid skating alone on a frigid night and begging Mom for just a little while longer; just a few more minutes to imagine himself bigger and better; just a few more minutes to be Gordie Howe.

Gordie Howe and I

(the author and Gordie Howe)

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 14, 2016. RIP Mr. Howe.

 

The Difference Between a Father and a Dad

My father is a good Dad. Every winter he created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games.

One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink waving the hose with that long, slow sweep that I liked to watch from my bedroom window, when suddenly, he experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile, he went in and to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would thicker and smoother than ever before.

I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pajamas with my Mom and brothers, gazing out our kitchen window with wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard, diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and froze along its twenty-foot length and then dripped and froze some more.

My Dad had woken up and turned the water off downstairs, walked up the basement steps, and stopped dead. Reflecting the dawn’s brilliant sun was a wall of ice, eight inches thick, seven feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he whacked the wall’s base. He banged and chipped and chopped until with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing he smacked its centre.

It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall swung up and then back and as it swung again he gave it a mighty smack. With that it all became magical. It slowly swung up and then over and then up and over again. The whole magnificent wall swung clockwise over the top and then around. Long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched my Dad throw the shovel, cover his head, and run with ice missiles soaring over and around him as the wall swung, a little quicker now, three complete times over the top and around.

It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that very night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We agreed that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a sound idea. But it stayed in the basement until spring.

Even better, though, was the idea that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kid’s fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.

My Dad is 80 now and doing the best that he can. I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called a slow goodbye but I never really understood it until now. He’s fading but he’s still him. As I take care of the man who took care of me I find myself remembering the fun and funny times. The difference between a father and a Dad has never meant more.

me as Gordie Howe

The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.

If you liked this column, please consider sharing it with others or perhaps checking out my other columns or even my books at Chapters, Amazon, or sensible book stores everywhere. Even better than that, call or recall someone who means or meant to you what my Dad means to me.