Another tragic event... Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims and families devastated by the apparent “Lone Wolf Islamic Terrorist" attack at the Orlando nightclub early Sunday morning.
Also, due to a bizarre series of events involving my old laptop which gave out Friday, and the new one I bought but had different configurations, we were unable to record our tribute Podcast to Gordie Howe with Tom Delisle. So instead, I’ve posted the fascinating article Tom wrote about Gordie - the man he knew so well - that was featured in Sunday’s Free Press. Sorry about the confusion. Here's the article...
He was a miracle.
He was the most graceful man who ever lived.
He was the most powerful man who ever lived.
Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who spent electric winter nights at Detroit’s holy cathedral of hockey, Olympia Stadium, in 1946-71 to see Gordie Howe, Number Nine, God’s gift to ice hockey, Canada’s gift to Detroit.
Just to see him jump over the boards and slowly take the ice at Olympia, his pained and graceful steps offering little evidence of the power that coiled inside him was a great and unique thrill.
Incredibly he won six Most Valuable Player trophies in his 26 seasons, he led the league in scoring six years — even landing in the top five in NHL scoring for an astonishing 20 consecutive seasons. And amid all that offensive flare, Howe was the toughest, meanest, most defensively adept and most powerful forward to play the game … to ever play the game.
There is a common saying currently popular among come-lately fans, ESPN types, who praise Number Nine by describing a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” as Gordie scoring a goal, an assist and piling on a fight in one game. Unfortunately for those converts, Howe almost never engaged in a fight in his contests … mostly because nobody would fight him. The last man who gave it a full effort was a New York Rangers madman named Leapin’ Lou Fontinato, who had his face rearranged so drastically by Howe in New York in 1959 that Louie ended up with his nose saying hello to his left ear.
Whack, whack, whack, whack. It was, said the referee, “like a man chopping wood.”
How respected was Howe by his opponents?
In the mid-1960s, the talented captain of the champion Toronto Maple Leafs, center Dave Keon, told a reporter: “There are six teams in the National Hockey League — Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago, Boston and Gordie Howe.”
As a Baby Boomer who was raised on family stories of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis and Bobby Layne, it was Gordie Howe who was portrayed as a Superman by my family in the ’50s. “His reflexes are unbelievable,” my father used to say. “God-given talent; no one like him.” “If he took it in his mind, he could be the heavyweight champion of the world,” my grandfather often claimed.
Although Howe was one of the toughest and most vicious players to ever play, he was also one of the most humble and kindest persons off the ice as hundreds of fans witnessed through the years.
Here’s my first encounter with my hero.
It was just one week after the 1955 Stanley Cup victory that Gordie and his mates came to our neighborhood church on Detroit’s east side to celebrate the wedding of defensive forward stalwart Marty Pavelich.
With my Topps Red Wings hockey cards jammed in my 8-year-old fist and an autograph booklet in the other, I led the local kids on mad charges from All-Stars Ted Lindsay to Red Kelly to Terry Sawchuk across the church grounds of Our Lady of Good Counsel parish. But it was Big Gordie that everyone sought, even the adults.
I was the first to waylay him and his then-pregnant wife Colleen in their 1955 Oldsmobile on the Friday night of the wedding rehearsal.
Back at my post early the next morning, with a cordial “Hey, Gordie, remember me?” to refresh our 12-hour friendship, I found myself being hoisted by his powerful hands up in the air … spun around so I was facing forward … and placed upon his shoulders high above the teeming crowd. From that fabulous vantage point, I was the envy of every kid in our neighborhood, being walked around the Red Wings church-front reception on the shoulders of the greatest hockey player in the world.
A shot of the “Purtan No Stars” team in 1972. Front Row: (Left) Rip Collins, Detroit Lions Equipment man; Tom DeLisle, Mayor Gribb’s Executive Assistant ( at that time); Dick Purtan, CKLW radio; Ted Pearse, TV sales; Sonny Grandelius, MSU All American and New York Giants; Gordie Howe.Second Row: Lou Schuck, Purtan's radio engineer; Bob Posch, area singer and entertainer; Tom Ryan, Purtan's producer; Kelly Burke, WXYZ News reporter,Earl Morrall, MSU All American and former Detroit Lion; Tom Kelly, Channel 2 sports anchor; Jim Davis, WXYZ radio afternoon host; Jim Price, former Detroit Tiger. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom DeLisle)
My personal history with Gordie Howe was filled with good fortune. Besides my fabulous wedding party ride, I encountered him again and again over the years.
While working with Detroit morning radio icon Dick Purtan in the 1960s and ’70s, we had great fun fielding a media hockey team called the Dick Purtan No-Stars raising money for charities.
Gordie was working in the Red Wings front office upon his retirement and we had the great fortune to have him play for the No-Stars, so naturally his involvement boosted attendance.
From a personal viewpoint, the idea of playing alongside Gordie Howe was a dream come true for myself and my teammates who consisted of local newspaper and radio-TV personalities, along with many former local athletes from the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions. We literally fielded teams with players as far-flung as Motown singer Marvin Gaye and 1940s Heisman football legend Doak Walker, along with Hall of Famers Ted Lindsay and Bill Gadsby.
I used to notice an odd noise in the air in our first weeks of pickup practices, something that I found distracting, out of place in hockey. Finally, I was able to discern that the strange sound was a giggle … a high-pitched titter that was coming from … well … the greatest hockey player in the world. As he was swishing by us on the ice or taking the puck from a group of players in a corner, Gordie was giggling like a schoolkid. “Hee-hee … hee, hee, hee.” He was having that much fun playing the game he had enjoyed, and mastered, all his life.
One time I snuck up behind him as he was casually turning with the puck, and I was able to sweep-check it off his stick. As I chased after the now-loose disc I was thinking “wow, I just poked the puck off Gordie Howe’s stick!”
Suddenly I experienced a machine gun-like rapping on the side and rear of my hockey pants as if I was being attacked by a flock of crazed woodpeckers. It was Gordie, whacking me wildly from behind … bang, bang, bang, bang! … with one hand on his sawed-off stick. Surprised and confused, I stopped in my tracks, turning to look back, only to have him sweep quickly by me, taking the puck back off my stick, and giggling wildly as he circled and headed back up ice. Yet it was a thrill to be upstaged by the great … and giggly … Gordon Howe.
In 1995, I was selected by Colleen and Gordie to write a book with them on the history of their family. The book was titled “And Howe!” and though Colleen and I didn’t see eye-to-eye about how it should be constructed, it gave me the opportunity to live and travel with Gordie for six months that year.
In airports we sometimes hung out at a VIP lounge where I often took advantage of an open bar, but Gordie would never have more than one beer. It was a rule he never abandoned.
“I’d like to join you,” he said one afternoon as I rose to get him a can. “But I don’t ever want a kid drinking alcohol because he once saw Gordie Howe having a beer in public.” That was Gord.
Gordie was a genius in many aspects of his life, personality, and work. While doing research on the book I was able to determine that he had suffered all his life from Dyslexia, a disease that rendered reading and writing near impossible for suffering young students.
It was virtually unknown out on the Canadian Prairie during his youth in the 1930s. Gordie, because of the disease, was mocked in his schoolwork and fell behind in his studies.
He told me once of a teacher sending him to the blackboard with the instructions to spell words she called to him from the class. He failed, awfully, in front of his fellow students. “The words were all backwards, like Chinese,” Gordie explained. “A lot of people called me ‘Dummy.’ ”
Friends of Gordie Howe knew that no one with the natural humor and incisive mind he exhibited could ever be regarded as being slow or dull-witted. And some observers have wondered if Gordie’s difficult childhood — being saddled with the undiagnosed curse of the Dyslexia that plagued him — may have sparked his fierce competitiveness and aggression on the ice that sparked his amazing talent.
Wayne Gretzky went way up in my estimation this last week when he was asked to comment on the passing of his childhood idol. He didn’t mince or waste words. The man nicknamed “The Great One” stated strongly that Howe was “the greatest hockey player in history … and the finest man I have ever known in my life.”
Gordie was our inspiration … Detroit’s village champion. A once-in-a-lifetime genius who brought light into all our lives across the many decades of his public stardom. Like Muhammad Ali, who was buried amid great public acclaim on the day Gordie passed, our Number Nine truly was the Greatest … of All Time.
And a man I admired and loved like no man I’ve encountered in this life.
Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter who was a Free Press reporter from 1967 to 1971.