Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe continues to produce 'miracles'
Gordie Howe, 86, chats with friends on Friday night after arriving at the Kinsmen Club in Saskatoon for a dinner in his honour. (Reuters)
It was perhaps one final snapshot of Gordie Howe and his famous elbows.
One none of us really thought we’d ever see again.
After enduring a lengthy journey just to get from Texas to Saskatoon on Thursday for the Kinsmen Club of Saskatoon’s Sports Celebrity Dinner on Friday, Mr. Hockey, known for elbowing opponents who got too close, did it again.
“He did it last night in the elevator to someone,” laughed son Marty during a press conference in Saskatoon on Friday morning, promoting the dinner that is being billed as Gordie Howe’s last public appearance.
It was a moment to savour for anyone who loves the sport of hockey and embraces Mr. Hockey’s place in it.
“It’s hard for us to believe my dad could actually make it here last night,” son Mark told the room full of reporters.
“For him to be here is a miracle.”
Just as it’s a miracle that Gordie, 86, is even still alive.
In fact, when you consider what it took just to get Gordie to Saskatoon in the first place, that’s a miracle in itself.
On Thursday, son Murray went down to Texas to pick his dad up.
Let the odyssey begin.
First off, their initial flight prematurely ended in Dallas when the plane was forced to land there because of mechanical issues.
Then there was a four-hour wait.
Next came a flight from Dallas to North Dakota, where they had to switch planes in order to properly clear customs.
Finally, they arrived in Saskatoon, the community Gordie grew up in, around 10:30 p.m., local time.
And, as he de-planed with the help of Murray in the midst of winter’s bitter bite, an airport attendant told Gordie to be careful of the icy conditions on the tarmac.
“Don’t worry,” Murray replied. “My dad has always been pretty good on ice.”
Later, as Mr. Hockey was being driven to the hotel, Murray mentioned to an accompanying TV camera that it was 12 hours after his father’s bed time.
As if on cue, Gordie pretended to fall asleep.
As his boys point out, every now and then, through his recovery from a stroke, through his dementia, Gordie’s personality and sense of humour will sneak through like this for all to see.
Which is also a miracle, because late last year, there was little hope that he would survive the severe stroke he suffered in October.
“At that time, we didn’t even know if he could make it (to this dinner) or even if he’d be alive,” Marty said.
Mark saw first hand how poor his dad’s condition was when he went down to Texas to see Gordie just after Thanksgiving.
“His will to live appeared to be over,” Mark said, adding that medical attendants had pretty much put Gordie into a medically induced coma.
“When I (arrived), they pretty much said: ‘Just let him pass.’ I said: ‘I know my dad better than anyone. I’ll make that decision.’ ”
Gordie subsequently was taken off some of the meds he’d been on. And, shortly afterwards, when a company specializing in stem cell treatments in Mexico reached out to the Howe family, it turned out to be a blessing.
The boys took their dad from Texas to San Diego, where a commercial airline actually held the plane for them so Gordie could make his connection. And then it was off to Tijuana, where the amazing treatment followed.
“The first injection was into the spinal fluid,” Marty said. “We were told it helps the motor skills. It worked.
“It was a miracle. He was standing in nine hours.”
Today, Gordie Howe shows glimpses of lucidity, depending on the day. The boys only hope he has a moment — that one special moment — in which he’ll be able to understand and acknowledge the outpouring of love and support from the hundreds gathered in his honour at the dinner Friday night, a collection of Mr. Hockey well-wishers that include hockey legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull and Brett Hull.
“I’ve said it before, Gordie was my idol,” said Gretzky, who brought his own sons to Saskatoon to share in this special event.
Gretzky was asked about the famous picture in which he is seen as a young boy standing beside Howe, who is holding the blade of his stick up to Gretzky’s throat.
“Like every other child, I was fortunate enough to meet my idol,” Gretzky said, documenting the circumstances surrounding the celebrity dinner in Brantford that Howe was attending at the time.
“My mom got me a new suit the day before. We went before the dinner to the Holiday Inn. He put his stick around my neck.
“A lot of times, athletes may be having a bad day and kids might say: ‘He’s not as nice as I thought.’ But in Gordie’s case, he was nicer than I could have ever expected.”
And what of that famous photo?
“I’ve probably signed that as much as any I’ve signed over the years,” Gretzky said.
For Brett Hull, his time in Detroit allowed him to experience the aura of Mr. Hockey in person.
“For me, having the chance to play for the Detroit Red Wings, you’d be screwing around, drinking coffee and suddenly Gordie would come in,” he said. “Just to be able to talk to a guy like that was something special.
“Because of my dad, I understood who I was talking to. I wish players today would understand how these guys pioneered and paved the way for the game.”
When the ceremonial dinner finally took place Friday night, Mr Hockey entered the room to chants of “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie.” Later in the evening, Bobby Hull called Howe “my inspiration.”
But perhaps Gretzky summed up Howe’s influence the best when he described Mr. Hockey as the “greatest” there ever was and ever will be.
Hefty praise from The Great One.
And, in the case of the legendary Gordie Howe, well-deserved.