Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming

Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming

Gordie Howe is still the greatest all-round player. ~ Ted Lindsay

This is the second biography, in a series of four, which I am reading/reviewing on Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Each the greatest to ever play their respective games.

I might be a bit biased, and not entirely serious, but for Ty Cobb and Gordie Howe at least there is a pretty strong case. I doubt you could find a baseball or hockey enthusiast who would say they don’t at least belong in the debate. For baseball, there are only three names: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

For hockey, there are only two: Gordie Howe (Mr. Hockey) and Wayne Gretzky (The Great One). To be fair, I have to give the nod to the Gretzky – you just can’t argue with his numbers. He broke all of Gordie Howe’s scoring records, and did it in fewer games. However, there are a fair number of hockey scholars who still argue that Howe is the greatest – based primarily on the differing eras the two played in. Regardless, Gordie Howe is ONE of the greatest to ever play the game. He won four Stanley Cups and owned all the scoring records when he retired in 1980.

Oh and…the Great One himself has this to say:
When I was a kid, I wanted to play, talk, shoot, walk, eat, laugh, look and be like Gordie Howe. He was far and away my favourite player…he’s the best player ever.

Like Cobb, Gordie Howe also has a reputation for being mean on the playing field (ice in his case). Unlike Cobb, who in my opinion suffers from an unfair reputation, Howe was indeed a bit mean – but only on the ice.

But as I’ve hinted – off ice he was a gentleman, humble, quiet, and unassuming.

I might as well keep up the comparisons with Ty Cobb. Unlike Cobb – who retired decades before I was born, I did have the privilege of watching Gordie Howe on television. Unfortunately, it was well after the glory days of the 50s when the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups. By the time I would watch the Wings were floundering in mediocrity, but Howe was still exciting to watch. In fact, in the 60s it is said there were four strong teams in the NHL: Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and Howe.

Gordie Howe: A Hockey Legend traces his career from childhood playing on frozen ponds in Saskatchewan, to his early playing days for Detroit’s junior hockey teams, to his prime, to his later years playing into his 50s on the same team as his two sons, and of course the totality of his Hall-of-Fame career. 

Gordie was raised in a large family (nine siblings), during the depression in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. His father was hard working, pragmatic, and a bit aloof. Still Gordie often cited him as imparting this valuable wisdom:
Never take any dirt from nobody.

But Gordie was a bit of a momma’s boy. He was shy, and conscientious about his own physical size and strength – considerably larger than children his own age. The author claims that Gordie inherited a mixed legacy from his two very different parents.
He is by turns self-deprecating and proud; introverted and outgoing; kindly and aggressive, excessively dependent and boldly risk-taking; guilelessly naïve and shrewdly down-to-earth.

The story of Gordie’s first skates has reached nearly mythical proportions in Canada. A neighbor came to the house one day, offering to sell a bag of “stuff” in order to buy food. Mrs. Howe gave her what she could spare and when the sack was emptied, out fell a pair of skates. Gordie pounced, claiming them as his own – and the rest is history (though he did have to share them for a while with his sister).

My favorite part of the book though tells of Howe’s early years in the NHL and of his friendship with teammate Ted Lindsay. Lindsay passed away yesterday, the day I finished reading Gordie: A Hockey Legend – rest in peace Terrible Ted. According to Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife…
Ted was family to Gordie, really the only family he had outside of Saskatoon.

Lindsay and Howe were opposites off the ice. Lindsay was bold and confident, helping the shy kid from the Canadian plains adjust to the big city and the spotlight. On ice, they were two-thirds of Detroit’s legendary “Production Line” (marvelous word play): Howe at right wing, Sid Abel at center, and Lindsay at left wing – one of the greatest front lines in hockey history.

There is much more of course. The narrative tells how Gordie was guided and protected in early life by his mother, later by teammate Lindsay, and eventually by wife Colleen. It tells of his epic rivalry with Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the man who previously held all the scoring records, and of his near fatal injury during the 1950 Stanley Cup playoffs. And there are some wonderful pictures, mostly of Gordie in action, but also one of a young teenager named Wayne Gretzky meeting his idol.

And there is the story of the most famous of all NHL fights – Gordie’s epic bout with NHL tough guy Leapin Louie Fontinato in 1959. Fontinato started the fight, but Gordie ended it. According to the author it was Howe’s last major bout…
Not because he lost the stomach for it, but because it put the word around the league that challenging him face-to-face was not an intelligent move.

And one more story, that explains one of the oddest traditions in North American sports. In the 1952 Stanley Cup playoffs, Detroit swept Toronto in four straight in the semis, and then swept Montreal in four straight in the finals. It was the first ever eight-game sweep in the playoffs. And eight you know, eight’s an important number now, and an octopus has eight tentacles – which somehow represent the eight-game sweep. And now, at moments of extreme fan delight at Detroit home games, fans are known to throw octopi onto the ice.

A very enjoyable and thorough look at Mr. Hockey.

Trivia: A “Hat Trick” in hockey is when a player scores three goals in a game. A “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” is scoring a goal, an assist, and a fight in one game. 


  1. Even though I am not an ice hockey fan, even coming from the northeast, I think sports biographies are really interesting.

    I do at least hope those octopi are dead...(poor guys)!

  2. Another great hockey book is Grapes by Don Cherry and Stan Fischler. SF is that rare bird: a sportswriter who knows how to write. At 87, he's still kicking, with a busy Twitter account


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