When I was a kid in the schoolyard, the conversation with my buddies would go something like this:
Nope, Howe’s better.
No way. Rocket’s better.
Take off, hoser.
No you take off.
Shut up and your mother wears army boots. (Or words to that effect).
That’s what it was. Always the same thing. Rocket and Howe. Two completely different players, but Howe was the enemy and Rocket was my hero, so I won. And I’ve known now for years that Howe was the better all-round player, but I didn’t then and I wouldn’t have admitted it even if I did.
In the 1990s I had breakfast with the legendary goalie Glenn Hall, who was in Powell River for the Allan Cup. Glenn was a teammate of Gordie’s in the 1950s with Detroit, and played against him while with Chicago and St. Louis.
Glenn had also faced the Rocket and Orr during his Hall of Fame career, and because he lived near Edmonton and still involved in hockey in various ways, was as familiar with Wayne Gretzky as practically anyone.
I asked who he thought was the greatest ever and he didn’t hesitate. Howe, he answered, because he could do it all, and the others couldn’t.
I didn’t tell Glenn his mother wore army boots.
But Howe could do it all. His wrist shot was something to behold, his passes pinpoint, his deft scoring touch like few others, his unequaled on-ice intelligence, the unparalleled respect he rightfully earned from other players.
And tough? You want tough?
My friend and former co-worker Gilles Gratton was a backup goalie during the 1974 WHA Canada-Russia Summit Series, and he told me about the time Gordie’s son Mark was leveled by a Soviet defenceman in dastardly fashion, so much so that an unsteady Mark initially skated to the wrong bench and had to be steered to the right one by Soviet players.
Not long after, Gordie just happened to skate by the player who nailed Mark, and the guy just happened to end up with a broken arm and was gone for the series.
You didn’t mess with Gordie or his kin.
Players in the NHL, WHA, or Russia didn’t go in the corners with Gordie. They timidly poked their sticks at the puck and then got the hell out of there before one of those famous elbows crushed their faces.
He did it all, legally or not. There was absolutely no one like him.
Several years ago Howe came to Powell River for an autograph signing and the prices charged for his signature were incredibly outlandish. Way higher than normal, maybe because Powell River is fairly isolated.
I was astonished at these abnormal prices and I wrote a column about it for the local newspaper in which I wasn’t very nice, coming down hard on him and the grocery store where the signing was held.
I regret that I did that. Extraordinary prices or not (and they were), this was a fine and friendly fellow, a legendary man, possibly the greatest hockey player to ever play the game, and he was there trying to make a buck. What an asshole I can be sometimes.
Now he’s gone and it’s a sad day for me and you and millions of others. I can almost hear angels in heaven’s schoolyard: “Rocket’s better”. “No, Howe’s better.” “Take off, hoser”.