Hangin' with Mr. Hockey

JIM KERNAGHAN

, Last Updated: 12:25 PM ET

There is an enduring timelessness to Gordie Howe and it is accentuated by his familiar laconic tones as he chats via cell phone while travelling along a Detroit freeway.

It could have been 10 years ago, 30 years ago, even half a century ago, and the self- deprecating banter, good-natured needling and genuine warmth would have been just the same as the other day.

Howe turns 80 today and is quick not to take any credit. He is the beneficiary of good genes, he points out.

"My grandmother lived to 104, my grandfather to 103 and my dad was well into his 90s," the man teammates dubbed Power explained matter-of-factly as he prepared for yesterday's birthday ceremony the Detroit Red Wings put on at Joe Louis Arena.

Time, of course, is relative. For Wayne Gretzky, it expanded in a way that allowed him to see and do things in a compressed time frame unavailable to others. For Howe, time telescoped, enabling him to accomplish feats across decades of action well beyond the reach of normal athletes.

A LENGTHY LIST

The numbers are easy. Howe played 32 professional seasons -- including six in the defunct World Hockey Association -- and finished in the top five in NHL scoring for 20 consecutive years. He appeared in 2,421 pro games with 1,071 career goals and 2,589 points, including playoffs.

He won the NHL scoring title six times, the Hart Trophy six times and led his teams to the final championship 15 of his 32 seasons. He was on 29 all-star teams.

It helps put things into better perspective by noting that Gordie Howe turned pro with the Red Wings right after the Second World War and was playing in the NHL dozens of years, prime ministers and presidents later until retiring in 1980 at age 52.

Performing on the ice in five different decades -- six, if you include a one-game promotional turn in 1997 with the International Hockey League's Detroit Vipers -- is only a matter of numbers, though.

Those of us who have been kicking around a while see it from different perspectives. Some personal observations:

I "was" Gordie Howe as a kid 9 or 10 years of age on the pond and in street hockey. A little more than 10 years later, I was once sent to interview him for my newspaper. Imagine, actually talking to Gordie Howe! How would I ever get close to the large, slope-shouldered superstar engulfed by so many people at the Canada's Sports Hall Of Fame?

Luckily, the essential Gordie Howe radar was unfailing. He glanced over and accurately sized me up as an ill-at-ease rookie reporter, then ambled over and stuck his hand out.

What followed was Gordie's description of being busy in the off-season, including an incident about falling through the ice during a commercial shoot up north with his young sons, Mark and Marty. Gordie did everything but walk me back to the paper and write the story himself.

"Hey, I remember that," Marty Howe said when I related the yarn to him the other day. "Gordie (yes, his sons all call him that) went through the ice and Mark and I didn't because we were just little at the time. It wasn't deep, but he got pretty soaked."

Marty and Mark, of course, got to play professional hockey with their dad in the WHA in one of sport's amazing rarities. Marty knew about his father's reputed meanness on the ice, especially his vaunted elbows, and how it was completely at odds with his gentle and courtly demeanour off of it.

"You had to watch yourself even in our own practices," he said. "Gordie played it tough every time he put on skates, practice or not."

I asked Marty about the bench-clearing brawl in which his dad came to his aid, an event that showed Gordie to be as creative an assassin as he was a playmaker and scorer.

"A guy was on top of me and wouldn't let me up," Marty related with a chuckle. "Gordie came along and told him it was over, to let me up. The guy says: 'I ain't doing nuthin' and didn't move. Gordie reached down and stuck a finger in each nostril and lifted the guy off. Geez, I swear the guy's skates were barely touching the ice. One of Gordie's fingers is like two of mine. That guy's nose was probably never the same."

LAUGH 'EM OFF

Gordie Howe tends to laugh off those things and not dwell on them. I've raised them in interviews with the big fellow across 40 years, but he'll always gloss over them.

He won a lot of fights over his career, including a celebrated wipe-out of New York Rangers tough guy Lou Fontinato that pretty well established him as unchallenged heavyweight champ of the league. Big No. 9's facility as a scorer, playmaker and fighter gave rise to the Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, assist and a fight -- even though it really happened in only one game, in 1955.

Marcel Dionne pegged Howe as a quintuple threat.

"Shot, speed, intelligence, toughness, puck-handling. Gordie was 5-for-5," Dionne once said. "Others might have had three, a few four, none five."

The man who came to be known as Mr. Hockey never fails to credit the influences on him, an ambidextrous kid with dyslexia and incredible physical strength trying to make the NHL at age 18.

"Guys like 'Sudden Death' Mel Hill and Harry Watson were so helpful," he recalled the other day. "I'll never forget them giving me some tips. And Harry's comment will never be forgotten. He said: 'We'll see you in the NHL soon.' I remember Eddie Shore telling me in Sarnia to just keep what I'm doing, not change anything. Those things mean a lot to a kid."

Howe's wife, Colleen, has been suffering from a neurological disorder known as Pick's Disease, which causes dementia, since 2002. His sons say Gordie is healthy.

Today, Mr. Hockey will be in his living room celebrating with friends and family. He'll be needling, telling yarns, throwing the odd mock elbow and other stuff Order of Canada members don't usually do.

What's 80 years? Gordie Howe has been defying time for most it anyway.

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MAGIC NUMBERS

Gordie Howe's astounding NHL career scoring statistics and where he ranks overall:

SEASONS 26 1st

GAMES 1,767 1st

GOALS 801 2nd

ASSISTS 1,049 8th

POINTS 1,850 3rd


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