Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mr. Hockey forever

The only time I saw Gordie Howe play hockey, he and the game were down to nightcaps.

It was long after midnight in Gordie's seemingly endless hockey revels, and last call was beckoning. The year was 1974, maybe 1975. Gordie was 30 years deep in a career that would know few if any equals. And he was playing with his boys, Marty and Mark, for some outfit called the Houston Aeros, in some charming fantasy called the World Hockey Association.

The WHA would not outlast the '70s, though it would leave some great stories. One of them was Gordie Howe playing with his sons in Houston, including one particular night when they came to play the fledgling Indianapolis Racers in Market Square Arena.

The Racers had hockey's last bare-faced goalie, Andy Brown, and not a whole lot else. The Aeros blistered 'em 10-0 that night, and my roomie and I drove down from Ball State to watch.

What we saw was Old Gordie, but still Gordie for all that. The legs weren't there anymore, but the brain and the skill still were. Every time he got the puck it went exactly where it needed to go, with an economy of motion that was partly a function of age but also the product of a peerless talent who had buffed his craft to a high shine years before.

I walked away that night knowing I'd seen greatness, even if by then it was mostly an echo of greatness.

And of course it all comes back with the news that Gordie has left us, passing yesterday at the age of 88 on the day Louisville buried Muhammad Ali. It was one of those odd confluences of history that happen on occasion, and there was a rightness to it, a sense of completion. One day; two farewells to two Greatests. Well, sure.

If Ali was the transcendent boxer of his age -- and of course far more than that, as a towering historical figure who was the embodiment of an entire era of awakening justice -- Gordie was the transcendent hockey player of every age. Wayne Gretzky will go down as the greatest offensive talent in the history of the game, but he was not the Greatest. That was Gordie, for his skill, his toughness, his command of every facet, every nuance.

Nothing made that more evident than the fact he's the father and namesake of the Gordie Howe Hat Trick: A goal, an assist and a fight. He scored 975 professional goals across more than 30 winters, 801 in the NHL and 174 in the WHA. No one has played more regular-season NHL games than Gordie's 1,767.No one has played in more All-Star games than his 23. And he was named the NHL's MVP six times.

He was, as indisputably as Ali, the Greatest. Or as his sport anointed him, Mr. Hockey.

That's as weighty a title as a kid from Saskatchewan will ever carry. And it's a testament to everything Gordie Howe is, was and will always be that it could have never fit anyone else half so well.

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