CALGARY - Flashing a grin so big no moustache in the world could hide, Lanny McDonald revels in telling the tale.
Even Hall of Famers have heroes.
In a career that spanned four decades and touched anyone who watched hockey from the 1940s until 1980, Gordie Howe found many ways to leave his mark on the game. And, apparently, on McDonald's face.
"I was playing in Toronto and Gordie was playing in Hartford with the two boys (sons Marty and Mark)," beams McDonald yesterday as Howe eggs him on.
"The boys told me before-hand 'Be careful because Gordie kind of runs things out there.' I run Mark into the corner, knock him down and am heading back up the ice feeling pretty good about myself. All of a sudden 'bam!' Gordie drops me with an elbow and says, 'Don't ever do that again.' "
Winking at Gordie in the midst of a perfect comedic pause, McDonald adds: "And I never did."
At a time when respect in the game has deteriorated to the point NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell has as many office visitors as team doctors, it's refreshing to hear of a day when players seemed to know where the line was between policing and headhunting.
"The worst thing you could do was end a guy's career by breaking something -- I'd rather just punch a guy in the nose and go sit down," chuckles Howe, in Calgary Thursday to help launch the Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer's tourney, matching beer leaguers up with NHL alumni.
"You'd go into the corner and I'd have to take him out -- because that was my job -- but I'd yell 'look out' or 'hold on.' I might say it a bit late for some guys," he adds with a devious chuckle, "but you didn't kill 'em."
And why not?
"What was nice about it in the NHL then was all the players getting together and having a friendship base -- you really stopped to think 'they're going through the identical thing you are,' " said Mr. Hockey, a six-time Hart Trophy winner. "You played golf and baseball with them. You got to know them. But the last year I played (1980), I didn't know half the guys on my own team."
His anecdotes speak to just how impersonal the game has become for the 700 NHLers who literally do battle every night. While league officials try desperately to reduce headshots and resulting concussions that pepper the highlights all too often, the players just don't seem to be getting the message Howe and his opponents used to echo: "We're all in this together."
McDonald says it has plenty to do with the exorbitant money on the line, as well as the simple culture of a sport that has become increasingly savage with the addition of today's armour-like gear.
"Respect in the game has deteriorated, but you look at all of sport like the NFL right now," said McDonald. "Part of it goes back to the cages and the equipment people are wearing and they feel invincible. It's the gladiator effect. But the bottom line is you still have to have respect for a person's well-being out there."
In his eyes, the whole system needs a purging as kids see the savagery in NHL rinks and emulate their heroes.
Sheldon Kennedy's brilliant Respect in Sport program is a step in the right direction in terms of getting parents under control. But what about the players?
"The first game I ever played I lost two teeth and got four stitches," said Howe, 82, smiling. "I delivered a few after that. With the respect we had for Lanny, we'd yell 'look out' before we hit him, but we'd keep the stick down. Or we'd give him a stick across the leg for recognition. We didn't have helmets, so aside from the odd punch (or elbow), we left guys' heads alone."
Make no mistake, Howe and his pals suffered through plenty of concussions and weren't exactly saints.
But the one thing they seemed to grasp is the importance of respect. Until today's players get that through their thick skulls, the fragility of said noggins will continue to be tested adversely.