off the ice, though, howe was a peach


Gordie Howe was quite possibly the nicest man you ever met — supposing you ever met him. Wayne Gretzky did, and has said just that, many times, including recently, during the sad week following Howe’s death on June 10. “A special man,” said Dan Robson, someone else who encountered Howe in person. He met a lot of people, over the years, and their consensus has been clear: he was a softspoken prince of man, funny and friendly, gentle, generous with his time, humble and cheerful.

Except at work. On the job, he was a different man: cruel and nasty, pitiless, a danger to navigation. “Mean as a rattlesnake,” Paul Henderson said in memoriam. “Tougher than a night in jail,” according to Brian Burke. Carl Brewer: “The dirtiest player who ever lived.”

“Everybody,” reminisced Rod Gilbert, “was scared of him.”

You’d think he hated his work. You’d guess he’d been forced into it, made to keep at it, couldn’t wait to escape. But no, of course not, quite the contrary — everybody knows that Gordie Howe loved the game that he was so dominantly (and malevolently) good at.

The meanness was a piece of the goodness, integral. Which is to wonder, also: could he have been quite so very good if he’d maintained his civilian decorum on the ice without turning on the viciousness?

No. Or, well — who knows. We assume not. If we ask the question at all, that is. Mostly, we don’t. Mostly we — Canadians especially — understand that this is a game, hockey, that demands a certain savagery. He did what he had to do. Howe talked about this, in his way. “Hockey,” he used to say, “is a man’s game.”

The second time Howe tried an autobiography, with Paul Haavardsrud’s assistance, he talked about self-preservation. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there,” they wrote in Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”

“I play tough,” is something else Howe said, in person, in 1974, “but I never hurt somebody.”

Gordie Howe wasn’t the first hockey player to be cast as a peaceable Jekyll who, donning skates, stepping to the ice, transformed into a remorseless Hyde. Not at all: hockey’s narratives note split personalities going back to the beginning of the organized sport. A few years ago, when I was reading all the hockey books, it became a bit of a hobby for me, collecting up variations on the trope. In most cases it’s framed as both an apology for bad on-ice behaviour. It also usually carries an implicit reassurance that a given player’s tranquil off-ice self is the genuine and governing one.

Don Cherry had another theory, which he framed for George Plimpton. Tiger Williams, Bob Kelly, Dave Schultz, Dan Maloney — they were very much alike in their personalities, he explains in Open Net (1981):

“… quiet off the ice, soft-spoken, and semi-shy. I’ve never seen a tough guy off the ice who was a wild man on, nor have I seen a wild man on the ice behave the same way out on the street. It’s one or the other. I guess if you were wild both on and off the ice, they’d park you away in a loony bin somewhere.”

Included in the pages of my book I had a former Leaf hardman, Kris King, talking about how, in his unintimidating time off the ice, he liked to fish and do a bit of charity work. My thick file also features citations of:

• the late Bob Probert, one of the most fearsome fighters in NHL history, “a classic goon,” in one writer’s phrase, who also had enough of a scoring touch to twice record 20-goal season with Detroit. “He was a teddy bear off the ice,” Jeremy Roenick wrote his autobiography, J.R. (2013), “and a fucking animal on the ice.”

When I played against Probert, he seemed like a wild-eyed, vicious thug. But when I played one season with him in Chicago, my attitude about him changed. He seemed like a gentle giant, a pleasant man with a big heart. If you met him in the dressing room, he would strike you as the guy you would want as your neighbour.

• Dave Schultz, one of the heaviest implements in Philadelphia’s toolbox during the bullyish 1970s. Asked for his opinion of Schultz in early 1975, NHL president Clarence Campbell didn’t hesitate: “He denigrates the sport.” An Associated Press feature from that same spring called Schultz “a Teddy Roosevelt type” who “speaks softly and wields a big stick.”

Off the ice, Schultz is a pussycat. He’s not an arguer. As a matter of fact the so-called ‘hammer’ of the Philadelphia Flyers is more of a peacemaker. His blonde wife, Cathy, says so.

If you were introduced to Dave Schultz without knowing he is a hockey player, you’d probably never guess his vocation. He could be a school teacher, an insurance executive. He comes off a low-key guy.

A year earlier, Dick Chapman of Montreal’s Gazette noted that back home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Schultz filled the hours “with things like jigsaw puzzles, building model ships and golf.”

• Ron Harris, a teammate of Howe’s and of Paul Henderson’s in Detroit in the 1960s. “By far the toughest guy in the league,” Henderson wrote in The Goal of My Life (2012). And:

… just like a lot of tough guys — guys like John Ferguson, for example — he was one of the nicest people in the world off the ice. But put a pair of skates on him, and he would get that glaze in his eyes. It’s kind of like Jekyll and Hyde — guys like that become crazy!

The toughness Ronnie added to our team made him really valuable.

ezi pkstrk

• Babe Siebert, one of the NHL’s biggest stars through the 1930s whose untimely death in the summer of 1939 shocked the hockey world as he was about to take over as coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The day after drowned in Lake Huron, The Gazette’s Marc McNeil was one who remembered him:

Siebert had really two personalities on and off the ice. On the ice, he was a roaring, driving, charging demon. He gave all he had every second he was in action. He fought and battled hard himself with every ounce of strength he possessed. … In the dressing-room, Siebert sat in a corner by himself, smoking. He never bothered anyone; talked only when he was spoken to. Even on trips, the Babe seldom entered into the poker and bridge games of the other players … Usually, if the club was pulling out of a city late at night, you’d find the Babe curled up in his lower berth examining fondly a new rod or reel, some new line or a set of flies he had just bought. For he was a confirmed fisherman and hunter.

• Eddie Shore, one of the best defencemen ever to play the game, also renowned for his on-ice recklessness and refusal to give any resembling quarter. John Barry profiled him for The Daily Boston Globe in 1932, noting that:

Soft-spoken Eddie didn’t sound much like a bad man at home. He’s a very quiet young fellow. His voice is hardly audible. He likes to laugh about his encounters and would rather talk ranching and bronco busting than hockey.

Sometimes — rarely — a player will himself wonder about the change he undergoes on the ice. The Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida carried an interview with Howe in 1972 under the headline

Roughneck Howe
Rowdy On Ice,
Gentleman Off

in which he did some light ruminating about the way he played the game:

“I’d hit somebody and have to go to the penalty box. Sometimes I’d ask myself why I did it. But I never could figure it out. Maybe it was just the reaction.”

Schultz reached a little deeper in his conversation with Dick Chapman of The Gazette, arriving at same place, more or less. “I can feel myself changing completely,” he said.

“It doesn’t happen in the locker room or when I skate out on the ice, but the moment someone touches me. It’s not like ‘street’ temper. I don’t know what comes over me, but it’s an instant reaction: something charges up in my blood and I become twice as strong as I normally would be.”

Never in hockey’s narratives — in countless books and periodicals — do you come across anything approaching analysis of this dualism in hockey players, why they might need to cultivate a second, anti-social self to play the game, whether this might signal that the game itself has some soul-searching to do.

Almost never. David Cruise and Alison Griffiths take note of the practice at its clumsiest in Net Worth (1991), their clear-eyed and mostly underappreciated exposé of the crooked history of the NHL and its player’s union, if only to disparage those who employ it:

In the 1987-88 playoffs, for example, Marty McSorley, then playing for the Oilers, nearly gelded Mike Bullard of the Flames, who was harmlessly skating toward the bench far from the action. A scythe-like stick to the groin dented Bullard’s cup. After a few ritual ‘tut-tuts,’ the commentators inundated viewers withy tales demonstrating ‘what a really nice, quiet, respectful young man’ McSorley was. They trotted out tales of his farm days and examples of his kindness to his mother, young children and strays.

McSorley, explaining his action, quickly fell back on an NHL classic, the ‘temporary amnesia defence’ — a never-fail explanation for an otherwise inexplicable atrocity.


Gordie Howe was no Marty McSorley. But no player in the game’s history features more in the file of hockey Jekyll-and-Hydes than the former Number 9.

The tributes that followed his death added to its bulk. Dan Robson, writing in Maclean’s, told us that we’ll remember Howe “for his vicious elbows and polite humility.” In The Vancouver Sun, Ed Willes recalled an old aside from Howe’s Hall-of-Fame son, Mark: “He was the nicest person off the ice you’d ever meet. On the ice he was the meanest SOB I’ve ever seen.” It wasn’t anything different from what Mark was telling Michael Farber in last week’s Sports Illustrated:

“He might break a guy’s jaw with his elbow, take out his teeth, cut him up real bad. Honestly, he was the nastiest person I ever saw on a pair of skates. He also was a completely different human being when he didn’t have them on.”

Assembled here, something of a catalogue of commentaries from those who’ve observed Howe’s demeanor, on the ice and off. Start with another son, younger, who played with Mark and Gordie with the WHA’s Houston Aeros and New England Whalers as well with the latter’s NHL incarnation in Hartford.


“Dad’s got the most patience of any person I’ve ever met, as long as he’s not on hockey skates. As soon as he puts on those blades he’s not the same person he is off the ice. He’d cut you in practice just as soon as look at you. In fact, when we played together, he cut more guys in practice than he cut in regular games …. But off the ice, he would take all the abuse that people gave him. He doesn’t react to abuse most of the time.”

(Marty Howe in and … Howe!: An Authorized Autobiography, 1995)


He was his own enforcer. Off the ice, however, he was a gentle, shy ambassador for the game and the epitome of how one should wear celebrity. He often took sticks and pucks to hospitals where he visited children to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

(John Boyko, The Globe and Mail, 2106)


Quiet, reserved, and shy away from the rink, Howe was a different man on the ice. Opponents felt he skated on the fringe of the rulebook — and he knew how to bend the rules. Any player who happened to embarrass Gordie with a move on the ice or by stealing the puck from him would ultimately pay. He rarely let on that someone got to him, but during the next brush-up the offender could expect five stitches — skating away wondering how he got an elbow in the jaw — but knowing there was a lesson in there about not embarrassing the Big Guy. Gordie Howe had tremendous pride.

Quiet, reserved, and shy away from the rink, Howe was a different man on the ice. Opponents felt he skated on the fringe of the rulebook — and he knew how to bend the rules. Any player who happened to embarrass Gordie with a move on the ice or by stealing the puck from him would ultimately pay. He rarely let on that someone got to him, but during the next brush-up the offender could expect five stitches — skating away wondering how he got an elbow in the jaw — but knowing there was a lesson in there about not embarrassing the Big Guy. Gordie Howe had tremendous pride.

 (Dr. John Finley, Hockeytown Doc: A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman, 2012)


He was Mr. Hockey, and the combination of a rough-and-ready persona on the ice and a self-effacing gentlemanliness off the ice served as the essence of what the Canadian hockey myth was understood to be at its best.

(Damien Cox, The Toronto Star, 2016)


Howe lacked star quality. On the ice, he was the complete player, skating only as fast as the play allowed, always cruising, looking, waiting, controlling the game. But his art concealed art; he looked unspectacular. As Richard’s supporters used to say, put them in arenas across the street from one another and see who would draw the fans. Off the ice, too, Howe was unassuming and modest to the point of being bland.

(Peter Gzowski, The Game of Our Lives, 1981)


Doug Barkley, a Detroit Red Wings teammate, offers an illustration of that blueprint. Howe collected his 600th goal Nov. 27, 1965, against the Montreal Canadiens.

“They gave him a standing ovation in the Montreal Forum, which you didn’t see very often,” Barkley says. “Next time out, he slammed J.C. Tremblay into the corner (cracking his cheekbone) and he got a standing boo from the fans. That’s the way he played — he’d already forgotten about the goal. There was a fierce side … Most people learned to stay away from him.”

Off the ice, though, Howe was a peach.

“Jekyll and Hyde,” Barkley says. “If you met him, he was like the guy next door.”

Adds [Brian] Burke: “Look at pictures of him, other than when he was playing, he’s always got a faint smile or a big smile. Always happy. Here’s this violent man … and every time you see him, he’s smiling.

“A wonderful disposition. Tougher than a night in jail, but gracious and kind.”

(Scott Cruickshank, The Calgary Herald, 2016)


Off the ice, Howe was soft-spoken, even shy.

“To me, Gordie is a contradiction,” said Howard Baldwin, former owner of the WHA and NHL’s Hartford Whalers. “I think anybody that followed his career knew that he was a fierce competitor and he was a tough hockey player. And yet he was a very gentle, kind soul off the ice.”

“You just loved to be around him, he always had a twinkle in his eye, loved to chat and catch up. He was a pleasure to be around as a friend.”

(Neil Davidson and Neil Stevens, The Canadian Press, 2016)


Off the ice, this big lumbering, muscular six-footer, who doesn’t seem to have any shoulders, the arms growing right out of his thick neck, this big guy with the shy smile, is as unassuming and as considerate as any big-name athlete ever.

(Don O’Reilly — in a chapter entitled “The Meanest?”— in Mr. Hockey: The World of Gordie Howe, 1975)


Off the ice, he was a gentle soul. On it, he was on a seek-and-destroy mission. His targeting apparatus did not recognize faces, only enemy colours.

(Cathal Kelly, The Globe and Mail, 2016)


According to Roy MacSkimming in his 1994 biography of Howe, Gordie: A Hockey Legend, the young Howe was like his father on the ice, but off the ice he was like his mother. “It would be a rank cliché to compare Gordie Howe to Jekyll and Hyde,” MacSkimming wrote. “But it wouldn’t be so far off the mark.” Off the ice, with his mother smiling as she prepared supper in the background, Gordie Howe would sit for hours at the kitchen table practicing his autograph, constantly asking his mother which style she preferred. To this day, Gordie Howe’s signature is the most legible known to collectors.

 (Roy MacGregor, ‪The Home Team: Fathers, Sons & Hockey, 1995)


“Gordie Howe is a remarkable fellow on and off the ice. Everybody knows what he can do on a hockey rink. It’s what he does off the ice, at home and on trips, that amazes me.”

“He’s never too busy to give autographs. On the road he often spends two or three hours answering mail that has accumulated at Detroit Olympia, sending out autographed pictures. It must cost him $300 to $400 a season in stamps alone.”

(Marcel Pronovost in Stan Fischler’s Gordie Howe, 1967)


Off the ice, Gordie Howe is a big, lumbering, bashful six-footer who mumbles inarticulately and wears an expression of almost permanent apology. The constant target of every intoxicated bore and loquacious ‘expert’ on the fringe of the game, he answers questions in squirming monosyllables and avoids all contention. Only when pressed will he make anything resembling conversation, and then his efforts at lightness and humor are as clumsy as the movements of a child on his first double-runner skates…

Once the whistle has blown, another Howe appears, who differs from the first as a mountain from a plain. This Howe has been variously described in a poll of coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker, the slickest puck carrier and the ablest stick handler in hockey. “He is,” according to a longtime opponent, “everything you would expect the ideal athlete to be. He is soft-spoken, deprecating and thoughtful. He is also the most vicious, cruel and mean man I’ve ever met in a hockey game.”

“The trouble is he knows how to shade the rules,” says one player on the Chicago Black Hawks. “You do something to him, he won’t let on you got to him. But when you come out of the next scramble, you’ve got four or five stitches you don’t know how you got.”

(Mark Kram, Sports Illustrated, 1964)


 Quiet, reserved, shy away from the rink, he has been termed vicious on the ice. Some of his adversaries, who have found the inability to skate with him frustrating, react bitterly in their personal assessment of him. But in their bitterness there is always respect, even awe.

(Jim Vipond, Gordie Howe: Number 9, 1968)


His off-ice personality is something that might have been designed by Lord Baden-Powell. He swears, of course. Listening to a hockey players talk without swear words would be like watching him play without his stick. He has been known to consume an entire can of beer in an evening, and to smoke a whole cigar between seasons. His most serious sin seems to lie in the wicked number of crossword puzzles he goes through. …

On the ice, though, Howe can be as cruel and vicious as he is personable and generous off it. He is not the most penalized player in the NHL — although only seven men had more penalties last year — but he is the acknowledged leader at getting away with things that would draw penalties if the referees saw them. His illegalities are as controlled as his play. He seems able to deal out punishment and pain with a complete lack of passion.

(Peter Gzowski, Maclean’s, 1963)


Howe was respectful, except on the ice, which he defended with ferocity. He was a farm-strong forward with skill and size and strength. And in those respects, he is a reflection of what many Canadian hockey players — and hockey fans — like to see when they look at the game. Strong, reserved and, when necessary, capable of delivering frontier justice.

“He was a quintessential Canadian power forward,” [Brian] Burke said. “Tougher than a night in jail, but classy.”

(Sean Fitz-Gerald, Toronto Star, 2016)


“You couldn’t invent Gordie today. If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.

“But put all that aside. I obviously liked Gordie’s hockey, but the man, well, he was one of the great individuals I ever met. When he was with my father he was so kind. I loved watching him tweak a kid’s nose. I’d meet him at All-Star Games and I had him at Parry Sound for a benefit game years ago. He was just a gentleman. I never heard Gordie raise his voice.”

“Watch him on the ice and then meet him off it, he was a different guy altogether. Gordie was a sweetheart off the ice. He was kind, and kind to everybody, whether it was a child or a grandmother. At All-Star Games he was the first one I’d want to bring to talk to my father and his friends.”

(Bobby Orr,, 2016)

(Top photo, from December 17, 1960, Library and Archives Canada; Bill Ezinicki clipping from 1947)