R.I.P. Gordie

Howe and Rocket

When I was a kid in the schoolyard, the conversation with my buddies would go something like this:

Rocket’s better.
Nope, Howe’s better.
No way. Rocket’s better.
Howe’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”.

Gordie & Rocket

18 thoughts on “R.I.P. Gordie”

  1. When i was a kid…there were two great number 9’s. ..the Rocket and Howe…being a Habs fan and having more acesss to the Rocket..i was always loyal to Maurice…but there was always great respect for Gordie Howe who showed a great passion for the game…I recall going to the Forum to see his first appearance with his sons Marty and Mark as the newly minted Hartford Whalers of the NHL…the crowd cheered whenever Gordie stepped on the ice…the Montreal fans had a lot of respect for Mr. Howe…deservingly so.
    Thanks for the memories….and thank you Dennis for yours.

  2. Cool stuff, Ed. Thanks again. I think you’ve had a most excellent life so far, with so much more to come. I would’ve loved to have lived in Montreal years ago. And yes Gordie. A great player but never really flashy. He just went about his business in near perfect style. But I’m sticking with Rocket regardless.

  3. Dennis…thanks for your excellent comments…you have lived in Montreal years ago!…maybe not your body…but your spirit…your passion for the legacy of Les Canadiens that you present in your blog makes you an honorary citizen of Montreal….and you will be presented with the hockey stick to the city next time you’re in town!
    Looking forward to your first recap of the new season on
    Oct 8!

  4. Dennis

    I was watching that game on TV when Gordie injured the Russian player.I couldn’t remember if it was Mark or Marty that was decked/sticked by the Russian.

    Russian player decks younger Howe.
    Younger Howe heads to the bench.
    Camera follows the puck [left to right] into WHA zone.
    A WHA player is heading [right to left][opposite direction] into the Russian zone.
    Now off camera.
    Camera pans back to see a Russian player injured on the ice.
    Gordie has had his revenge.
    Yeah … don’t mess with my boys!

    I never actually got to see Gordie Howe play live.When I was living in Sarnia he was in the Wings Front Office and then in the WHA.

    I did get an autograph and a short conversation with Gordie at a PJHL game in Ladner (Delta Ice Hawks).


  5. Hey Dennis. On Friday February 29th , 1980….a leap year I was in the Hartford Civic Center. The Whalers were playing the St Louis Blues and Mr Hockey scored his 800th goal.
    Years later here in Ottawa there was a book signing at a local Zellers and Gordie had a book signing session. Strict rules as Gordie would only be signing his sold books. As I spoke to him and got my book signed I related to him that on the certain night in 1980 I was in the same place as him.He couldn’t come up with an answer and I pulled out the ticket stub and game summary from that night. He noted the assists on his historic goal (Caroll,Johnston) and noted that Patty Boutette had scored shortly after that. He also saw the ticket price ($11) and couldn’t believe how prices had escalated over the years.
    I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing the ticket stub and despite objections from nearby staff Gordie was happy to oblige. A cherished memento and a class act from a man who always believed the fans came first.Thanks for the memories.

  6. Great stuff, Jim. I didn’t know you were at a game in Hartford quite a few years before the bunch went there. And great that you got the stub signed. A wonderful memento for sure.

  7. So Dennis apparently Gretzky has put it out there that the league should retire Howe’s #9. What do you think about that especially as it was also Richard’s number? Is it kind of a slight to other great players who also wore #9? I’m specifically thinking not just of Richard but also Hull who was pretty decent too. I think Winnipeg should have retired Hull’s number 9 and am a little miffed that they let a ditz like Evander Kane wear it!

  8. It bugs me, D-John. It also bugged me when I saw a petition to retire the number because of Howe. The Rocket’s number 9 carried as much weight or more, and only now they talk about it. For what the Rocket did and was, his name and number should always be talked about in the same sentence as Howe. Hull too, but especially our guy.

  9. Ditto what DK & D-John said! Never mind I never liked Gretzky, he was a whining baby like Crosby. You never saw Hull, Howe Beliveau or the Rocket crying foul. Therefore retiring # 9 in Gordie’s honour would be a slap across the face to quite a few other Greats, none more than the Rockets for what he meant to the legions of Hab fans inside Quebec & outside! I also include les Gros Bill because he was from that era and my life long idol!!!!
    les Canadiens sont la!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Gretzky admits he’s biased about retiring #9 for Howe. And since he wore 99 as a tribute to Howe, retiring the extra 9 is unnecessary.

    And it’s not really possible to retire one of the traditional single digit numbers league wide. Imagine if someone had proposed retiring Beliveau’s #4 last year. I wonder if any teams would have objected.

  11. Ahhh de fire izz coming back to the boys hearts!!!!Lots of players had or have great talent—– NONE have/had the passion to go with it like the Rocket did. How many goals would Gretzy have if he didn’t have his personal body guard on the ice with him every shift? The league can do as they wish with #’s; de Habs set the bar for greatness back when. Now we have to kick butt and reclaim those moments with our current group —–with some changes as needed.

  12. At the same time guys don’t forget that they named the goal scoring trophy after Richard. Maybe if they want to honour Howe they should name an award after him too? I wouldn’t object to that. In fact I feel it’s time to update a lot of the trophies by naming them after people that are more familiar or connected to the award. Norris Trophy? How about the Orr Trophy? Yeah we could campaign all we want it wouldn’t be named after Harvey! Best coach? Wasn’t Jack Adams a nasty guy? How about naming it after Scotty Bowman? Well you get my drift.

  13. D-John,there’s a movement afoot now to change the Hart Trophy to Howe. I’d be okay with that. I agree with you, some of the trophy names could be changed to Orr etc. What about the Gomez Trophy for something? I just don’t know what. Biggest slump of the season?

  14. Right on Peter, some changes needed for sure. A big blockbuster trade to get a star forward.

  15. For sure, Christopher. Only one team might object to number four, and we don’t care about them.

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