Hodge: Hockey legend was the epitome of a gentle giant

When he first stepped on the ice in the National Hockey League for the 1946-47 season, it was a much different league than today.

Gordie Howe

Charlie HodgeYou don’t have to be a sports fan to recognize the double whammy last week robbing the world of two fine people.

Ironically while the boxing world reeled from the loss of Mohammed Ali and the accolades and hearty goodbyes began for the former world heavyweight champion, the hockey world learned of the passing of the legendary hockey great Gordie Howe.

Last week in this space, I commented that Ali was probably the greatest athlete in modern times, separating Ali from Wayne Gretzky simply based on cultural and social impact.

While Ali will go down in history as “The Greatest,” and Gretzky as “The Great One,” Howe leaves this planet with two tags: “Mr. Hockey” and “The Great Gordie Howe.”

In many ways, though the oldest of theses three great athletes, Howe was a perfect blend of the other two.

Without question a talented athletic specimen, Howe was also the epitome of humbleness, toughness, and (ironically) gentleness.

He was already a legend in the sporting world when Ali earned his first heavyweight champion title and Gretzky was even born.

Even as a youngster, Howe showed tremendous promise as an athlete.

The Floral, Sask., native turned heads as a kid, whether on frozen outdoor rinks or modern indoor arenas.

When he first stepped on the ice in the National Hockey League for the 1946-47 season, it was a much different league than what hockey players enter today.

To earn a spot in the six-team league at that time, one not only had to have tremendous talent but determination and willingness to pay a physical price.

There are many great Howe stories reflected on by those at his funeral services this week, and I am sure we will hear many more over the next few months.

Like thousands of other Canadians, I was honoured to meet the legendary right-winger through my association with writing Howie Meeker’s biography.

During our five years together writing two books, Meeker often reminisced about his unique parallel life to Howe.

Meeker remains the answer to one of the great hockey trivia questions: Who beat Gordie Howe for the rookie of the year Calder trophy in 1946-47 season?

Meeker had a tremendous first season filling the net with pucks, establishing a record still held today of five goals in one game as a rookie, and went on to win his first of four Stanley Cups that year.

But Meeker scoffed at beating Howe for the Calder.

“That was the greatest miscarriage of justice in hockey,” he said. “It was outrageously unfair. I was a young man returning from war, a veteran of life and ready to take on the world.

“Gordie was a gangly 17-year-old snotty-nosed kid playing against men in an incredibly competitive environment.

“But even then you knew the kid was going to be something else. Two or three years later and I could not carry the kid’s suitcase. Winning the Calder trophy? Phooey what a joke.”

Among the many Howe legends was his on-ice toughness and his friendship with fellow Detroit Red Wing forward Ted Lindsay.

Meeker, to his chagrin, was more than familiar with both characters.

In fact, he knew them far too well for his own liking.

“We (Gordie) fought all the time over the years. Oddly enough we got along fine but somehow we always wound up fighting. I always started scrapping somebody else like Ted Lindsay and then Howe would step in and we go at it,” Meeker recalled.

“I’m not sure why Howe had to step in cause Lindsay was tough enough on his own, but he would. Gordie was a big, tough boy and very, very strong.

“People always talk about how much we fought and I thought it was an exaggeration.

“But I never really fought with Gordie; Gordie fought, I just took the shit-kickings.”

Many will argue that Gordie was the greatest hockey player that ever donned the blades.

It is a debate that has gone on long before  Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and even Bobby Orr.

While I do not rank Howe as the number one all-time on-ice player (nor does Meeker), it is fair to say he was probably the greatest player for the game in the big picture.

Not only did Howe represent dedication, perseverance, toughness, athleticism, and humbleness, he was also a gentleman (forgetting his elbows and ferocity for fighting) and an ambassador of the game.

He captured our imagination playing during over five decades and joining his sons professionally on the ice.

He changed the game and the world around him, and he will be missed.