Wayne Gretzky, who turns 56 today, was 14 in 1975. He was a star already on his skates, of course, leading scorer among bantams in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, and ready for a new stage. In the fall of the year, he joined the Vaughan Nationals of the OHA Metro Junior B league — where he was soon suspended. Not for any on-ice indiscretion: minor-hockey rules decreed that he had to play for the team nearest his home. The Gretzkys went to court to challenge the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association on this, and they won the case, which got Gretzky back into action in time to win recognition as the league’s leading rookie.
It was around that time that this photo of a languidly studious Gretzky was taken. Hard to say exactly when it was, but I’m proposing late ’75 or early ’76 based on nothing more than the fact that the non-academic book young Wayne has at hand here was published in the fall of 1975. My entirely unanchored conjecture is that the book that’s on view here was among the once-and-future-99’s Christmas presents that year.
My Three Hockey Players was Colleen Howe’s account of her 48-year-old husband Gordie’s further hockey adventures in Texas, where he’d taken up with the WHA Aeros in order to play with sons Mark and Marty. “She covers the good and the bitter times,” the book’s own flap blurbage promises, “the long separations, the pressures …. She comments on the cruelty or ice hockey and what should be done about it.”
You can see why it would have been a book to hold Gretzky’s interest. Written with assists from Houston writers Mickey Heskowitz and Kathy Lewis, it’s not exactly a conventional hockey book, focussing in large part on the home life and business of being a superstar as much as the actually hockey-playing of it.
Not long after its fall release, Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot commended My Three Hockey Players for the book’s “clear picture of a warm, strong family relationship, which alone makes it nearly unique in modern literature, and as a bonus it gives you a matchless glimpse of Gordie Howe, a man well worth knowing.”
Proudfoot was also taken by how “delightfully frank” Mrs. Howe was when it came to matters of “romance.” I believe he’s referring here to the chapter that’s focussed on “the hustling females” who plague hockey players while they travel the lonely roads of an NHL season.
“No woman,” Colleen Howe wrote — and I guess teenaged Wayne Gretzky might have read, taking a break from his chemistry assignment, in his basement retreat, under the watchful gaze of Bernie Parent and Chico Resch —
No woman ever made the error of making a pass at Gordie in my presence. But Gordie — and I don’t mean to set him apart — doesn’t have, and never did have, the lover-boy or rounder image. But I’m not naïve. During our marriage he has probably had a good look at someone else. For all I know, he may have had an affair or two. What I do know is how deeply Gordie cares about me. With this I feel secure.
Should I sound more morally indignant or alarmed about the threat that exists out there? I’m sorry. Mary Poppins doesn’t live here any more. This is the real world.
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.
Gordie Howe was in Toronto this week, helping to raise money and awareness for two worthy causes: the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s and the health sciences centre at Baycrest. At 84, Howe was meeting people and chatting, but not talking to the media. His eldest son was, Marty, and he discussed his dad’s brain and the toll it’s paying for a long career in hockey. As the family has already disclosed, Howe senior suffers from “mild cognitive impairment,” which includes memory loss and trouble finding words. Such is the strange place in which hockey finds itself these days that the question of the day was whether the family plans to donate the senior Howe’s brain for scientific study after his death. As reported in today’s Globe and Mail, the answer from Marty was a no, um, not something we’ve really talked about so far.
“I’m sure there were multiple concussions,” the younger Howe did volunteer. “You play 32 years of hockey at that level and things are going to happen.” Specifically he mentioned the night of March 28, 1950, when Howe almost lost his life in a playoff game against Toronto. Howe’s description of what happened is in his 1995 memoir And … Howe!:
Teeder Kennedy’s stick caught me under the right eye and scraped the eye. It also broke my nose and cheekbone. And that’s when I went into the boards and had the serious concussion. Complications set in and I had trephine surgery to relieve fluid on the brain.
So that’s one. Marty Howe also recalled (two) that when he and brother Mark were playing with their dad in New England in the WHA, a teammate icing the puck hit Gordie in the back of the head and concussed him.
A further few, from the archives: in January of 1961, against Toronto, Howe was reported to have suffered a “mild” concussion (three) when he collided with the Leafs’ Eddie Shack — that and a gash over his right eye that took ten stitches to close. Continue reading