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Gordie and Dad
Fond memories of a legend
6/16/16 - By Ken Smyth -

There's still a few thoughts about the Sharks' playoff run, but today is a time to reflect on Gordie Howe. The personalities of the hockey world are coming forward with individual recollections and anecdotes about what a fine man he truly was. For me, though, Gordie Howe is another part of the stuff I shared with my dad.

The first hockey team I followed was the 1969-70 Chicago Black Hawks. Yes, they used two words then. Bobby Hull was the Golden Jet, Bobby Orr (good knees then) was the future but Gordie Howe was the ageless star of the Red Wings. My dad talked of going to games with his uncles, and watching Howe from the standing room seats up in the top of Maple Leaf Gardens.

I remember the Red Wings as the other team running up the standings that year, chasing the Black Hawks all season and coming in 3rd place in the Eastern Division to the Hawks 1st. We never did get to a Hawks game in Chicago, the tickets were very scarce and there were no Stub Hubs or Craigslists. Only scalpers, and frankly, my family didn't have that kind of money.

Gordie was what is now called a power forward, playing the right wing. In that era players went north-south and the strategy was to push opponents into corners, trap the puck and draw a face-off. As you've heard, nobody wanted to go into a corner for a puck against Howe. Rosters were smaller then, a team had three lines, four defensemen and three spots on the bench.

If you wanted to play, you were your own enforcer. Gordie handled that role well. I think Dad liked the fact that here was a 40-year old star in a league of twenty-somethings, showing them how it was done. I remember Howe and center Alex Delvecchio could pass the puck on a string going up the ice and were deadly on a 2-on-1, maybe because the Hawks D was somewhat slow afoot except for Pat Stapleton. It also could've been those straight blade sticks.

Howe was suffering from what we now call carpal tunnel syndrome, then called arthritis, and the Wings moved him to defense in 1970. Then in 1971, they "promoted" him to the front office as a vice president in charge of paper clips. The new-fangled WHA made him an offer he couldn't refuse in 1973, giving him a chance to play with his two sons on the Houston Aeros.

By this time his surgically repaired wrist had healed and he led the Aeros to Avco Cup championships in 1974 and 1974, scoring 100 and 99 points, respectively, in those two years. He stayed on in the WHA, competing in the 1974 Summit Series against the Soviets and moving on to the Hartford Whalers in 1980. He remained with the Whalers when they joined the NHL in 1979, and played at the age of 53 on the Whalers' "Hall of Fame" line with Bobby Hull and Dave Keon. Of course, Gordie wore number 9.

By that time my family moved away from NHL cities and my only following of the game was through the newspapers. Dad and I went to an exhibition game at the Cow Palace in 1985 between the Capitals and North Stars and I could see he missed it as much as I did. When the Sharks franchise was announced, we joined with some others on a season plan. Who did the NHL bring out to model the new Sharks jersey in 1991? Dad's old hero, Gordie Howe.

Dad and I finally got to meet Gordie in person at the 1997 All-Star game in San Jose. He was shaking hands and signing autographs, exchanging a few words of small talk with everyone. I still have that autographed copy of "and Howe". Sometime around then, though, we could see that Dad was fading, forgetting things that were real and remembering things that are not. But when he watched a game from our spot in the upper deck he seemed to be enjoying himself. Some time in the early 2000's he stopped coming with me, the crowds were a bit too much.

Two years ago Dad passed away from dementia. And last weekend, Gordie. Dementia is a cruel disease, stealing people from you silently, bit by bit. But to cope, you must block what you see and live in your best memories of the person you're losing. Memories are precious, fragile but also a source of strength and love.

The Howe family has their own private memories of Gordie. When you take your kids to a game, a play, a movie; share with them what makes it special for you and it will make it special for them, someday. If there's a hockey heaven, Gordie is coming out of the corner again with a backhand shot on Terry Sawchuk. And my dad is having a beer with his uncles.

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