Author’s Interview with Al Arbour January 16, 2008

MHD: “Mr. Arbour, I gotta ask you this question since you saw both men play. Who was better? Gordie or Gretzky?”

Arbour: “Gordie!”

MHD: “Why?”

Arbour: Gretzky needed a bodyguard and Gordie didn’t!”

The death of Gordie Howe ends a chapter in the annals of NHL history. For 70 years as a player and as a living legend he was hockey history. He became it because he made it. He made it because he possessed it. He possessed it because he grew up in a rugged, isolated milieu that gave him the drive to escape the yawning emptiness from where he came and go to the place where he was destined to be: the Hockey Hall of Fame and that special place found in the hearts and minds of hockey fans around the world.

Gordie Howe was the perfect hockey player: combining size, speed, strength, intelligence, ambidexterity, durability, passion, and commitment to his team and to his teammates. Gordie could score, set up his teammates, defend and protect (woe be to the opponent who dared to cheap-shot his sons during his WHA days) or duke it out if necessary (the late Budd Lynch told me in a 2007 interview that calling the action of the 1958 Gordie Howe-Lou Fontinato fight was like calling a Joe Louis boxing match. Lynch told me that he was telling the radio listeners, “Howe lands with a left! Howe connects with a right!”).

One could write an entire book based on Gordie Howe folklore. When you peel away the legend what we have left is pure greatness.

Gordie Howe and Maurice “Rocket” Richard were the two greatest players of the Original Six era. It was they who took hockey into the modern era. It was they who gave hockey a glorious past that would inspire the present and usher in the future. Hockey as we know it today is inconceivable without the contributions of both Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe.

Gordie Howe (and Henri Richard) are the only hockey players I know who played with a mane of silver hair (although one wonders if Jaromir Jagr will one day eventually join them in the silver hair department?). One of my favorite hockey photos of all time is a picture of the young Wayne Gretzky wearing his Jofa helmet getting ready for a face-off against Gordie Howe. Gretzky is already in his crouch while Gordie old and gray stands before the future Great One as if to draw his breath before he goes toe-to-toe with the young man who would surpass his records. The symbolism and allegory found in that photo is powerful to behold.

Such was Gordie Howe’s stature that the late NHL referee Frank Udvari told me in a 2008 interview that even the late John Ferguson (one of the game’s toughest and strongest players during the 1960s and early 1970s) never had a go at Gordie Howe (and Udvari told me that Howe reciprocated; that both men respected each other’s strength and toughness so much that when they clashed in the corners they did so professionally and cleanly). Still Gordie wasn’t above taking advantage of his exalted status in the NHL. When I interviewed New York sports writer Jerry Eskenazi about his memories of covering the Rangers during the 1960s and asked him who was the dirtiest player he saw in the NHL he told me bluntly and without hesitation it was Gordie Howe, adding, “The refs let Gordie get away with murder on the ice.”

And yet the late Bill Gadsby (a former opponent and teammate of Gordie’s) told me in 2007, “Gordie played you the way you played him. If you hit him clean then he would hit you clean but if you played him dirty then you would get the elbows.”

But if there is one memory of Gordie Howe’s passion for playing it is the one told to me by Bryan “Bugsy” Watson at in December 2006 at his eatery in Alexandria, Virginia. In the darkened bar of the eatery we talked while Bugsy puffed away on a cigarette when I asked Bugsy what it was that made Gordie Howe the great player he was he pointed to a large photo of Gordie on the wall of the restaurant. In the dim lights it looked like Gordie either had lamp-black underneath his eyes or else he had two black eyes. The bulldog expression on Gordie’s face was one of wanting to eat the camera raw.

Bugsy told me that during a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs Eddie Shack butted Gordie’s forehead wide open with his stick, causing blood to gush all over his head. Gordie went into the dressing room for stitches but it took a while; during both intermissions Bugsy saw Gordie sitting on the trainer’s bench, red-faced, snorting like a raging bull and demanding that the trainer hurry up with the stitches. When the third period began Gordie returned to the bench, went over the boards, sought Eddie Shack on the ice and delivered a crushing fore-check that leveled Shack.

Bugsy told me that was what made Gordie Howe the greatest of all time; that unquenchable desire to play.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Hockey.

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