Gordie... And Howe!
Tales from another land, long ago: In the 1960s, my father bought our family a table-top hockey game representing the six teams then in the NHL. My father was a social Darwinist, so he told me and my four brothers that we couldn’t all have the same team. We had to choose different teams. My two older brothers selected the two Canadian teams, the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs.
Which left me with the American teams to choose from. Whom to choose? Gordie Howe was the greatest player of the era, and so it was I picked the Red Wings. It lasted for life. But that was more because of Gordie than the Red Wings (who languished for decades). The grace and power of No. 9 defined my life because, as a Red Wing fan in Montreal, I had to represent in the school yard against all the Habs fans.
Gordie had a long connection to Eatons stores, and as such he travelled the country to make appearances in the summertime. So my first view of Gordie in the flesh came a few years later at a tiny Eatons catalogue store in the mill town of Sherbrooke, Quebec. Gordie was driven to the front door of the store in a convertible, and though he spoke no French (he called Jean Beliveau “Gene”) he mesmerized the crowd of mostly Francophone Habs fans. I was gobsmacked.
Years later, when I entered the reporting trade, I’d see Gordie at events— usually not connected to the Red Wings or NHL from whom he was estranged after leaving for the WHA. But when I began covering the attempts of Carl Brewer and Sue Foster to bring justice for NHL players’ pensions I got to see that the real Gordie Howe was a hero on and off the ice.
Refresher: When Gordie retired after 25 seasons in Detroit, his NHL pension was about $13,000 a year. This for the man who’d help build the Original Six NHL and who always willingly played in events advertised as helping the pensions of retired players, Turned out that his efforts in All Star Games and playoffs simply went to paying off the owners’ premiums. Any money left over went into general funds of the league. The players never saw an extra dime.
Worse, the NHL Players Association leader, Alan Eagleson, had allowed all this to happen on his watch, so eager was he to line his own pockets while depriving players of honest representation. Brewer and Foster had worked for years in the wilderness, trying to expose the complicity of Eagleson and his pals in NHL management. They got nowhere, because Eagleson portrayed them as flakes and opportunists.
While many former players hesitated, Gordie jumped in to support Brewer and Foster in raising support and money to launch a lawsuit against the league. The NHL, under then-president John Ziegler, threatened to sue Mr. Hockey and several other former greats if they didn’t stop speaking out about the pension ripoff.
Gordie never backed up. He made a stand at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He refused to wear his Hall jacket or participate in events until Eagleson was removed as a member. He lobbied Wayne Gretzky to make sure he demanded answers from Eagleson and the NHL on where the money had gone. He stopped going to NHL events.
I remember sitting in the benches when the pension case came to court in Toronto in 1993. I was watching the judge as the case got underway. His head was down. Then he did a double take worthy of Bob Hope. Gordie had walked into the courtroom. The look on the judge’s face said everything. This case would get his utmost attention. The NHL would have to stand on facts.
Which was bad news for the league. The players won the suit. Gordie and hundreds of players received cheques for (some of) the money the NHL had misappropriated. After a protracted legal struggle Eagleson was convicted of fraud in Canada and the U.S. Ziegler was replaced by Gary Bettman (who’s been much fairer to old-timers than his predecessors).
One final Gordie moment. Shortly after the pension trial some of my colleagues organized a small party for me when I was going from local to national duties at CBC. We were leaning on the bar at a joint on on Yonge Street. Suddenly one of my colleagues said, “Hey, who’s that coming through the door?” I looked over. It was Gordie. He and Carl had come to join us for a pint and some chat.
With my amazed colleagues I stood there for an hour, shooting the breeze with No. 9, my boyhood idol and grownup hero. If you’d never met him you wouldn’t know Howe’s wry sense of humour. As we imbibed, I could see Gordie eyeing one of my colleagues, who was not prone to getting haircuts. After a suitable pause, Gordie caught his eye and said, “So, your barber… does he charge you by the acre?”
Mr. Hockey. Special man. God bless him and his family.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).