He was 47 years old and the best player on the ice
I grew up watching Gordie Howe on television, though by that point, the early 1960s, his star was somewhat dimmed. He’d been in the NHL since 1946 – a league where the average player career is about six seasons. At that point he was already a legend.
The man they called “Mr. Hockey” died yesterday, age 88. His National Hockey League career lasted until his retirement in 1971. But that wasn’t the end.
He’d already played past the age most NHL players retire, but he had a dream. He wanted to play professionally with his sons Mark and Marty (born in 1955 and 1954 respectively), both of whom were pretty good hockey players. By un-retiring and playing in the upstart World Hockey Association Gordie got his wish. That’s when I saw him play.
It was February 1976, and Gordie, Mark and Marty were playing together for the WHA’s Houston Aeros. The team was the league powerhouse, and they came to Ottawa to play the Ottawa Civics.
Most Ottawa residents don’t remember the Civics. Ottawa had a team in the WHA when it started in 1972, the Nationals, but they moved to Toronto and became the Toros before the playoffs of that inaugural season. Ottawa’s Civic Centre had a capacity of 9,855 – not really big enough to make a pro team viable, at least not one at that level. Anyway, that team usually didn’t have to worry about selling out.
But, in early 1976, the WHA’s Denver Spurs franchise, with attendance so low as to be unmentionable, was looking for a new home. An Ottawa group reached out and made a tentative deal to purchase the team, renaming them the Civics.
The Aeros game was sold out. Not surprising – I doubt Gordie Howe had ever played in Ottawa before – though it is possible there may have been an exhibition game at some point that I am not aware of. He was retired when the Ottawa Nationals were playing. Excitement was high. I don’t remember how I managed to get a ticket, or whether I went alone or with a friend.
I do remember the game though. Most of the players on both teams were journeymen, players not good enough for the NHL. The WHA had made a splash when it started, with some big signings, including Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson. Economic realities though dictated that most of the players were lesser talents. The three Howes were dominant for the Aeros, Gordie most of all. The rest of the team was forgettable. But the Howes put the Aeros a notch above the Civics, who had only one player who looked comfortable on the ice. That was centre Ralph Backstrom, who had been a star a decade previously with the Montreal Canadiens. I was glad to be there, to see Gordie Howe playing with his sons; I knew there wouldn’t be another chance – but it wasn’t the greatest hockey.
That was the Civics second and last home game. The team folded later that week. Turned out the owners of the Denver franchise wanted the new owners from Ottawa to assume a couple of million dollars of their debts. The Ottawa group refused. Two million dollars is not much money in sports these days, but it was a lot in 1976.
There will be many tributes to Gordie Howe over the days and weeks to come, from people who knew him. Certainly there is much more that can be said. He had a professional hockey career that spanned five decades – something unlikely to be seen again. But he was more than that. He was an athlete with a reputation as a gentleman off the ice. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see him play.