RIP Gordie Howe.
A lot of memories came back when I heard of Mr. Hockey's passing a couple of weeks ago.
My first hockey game was in his 51st year. This was the Hartford Whalers' first year as an expansion franchise after having several successful seasons in the WHA. A great portion of that success in the late 1970's was Gordie Howe. And it nearly didn't happen. After leading the league in scoring as a 40 year old, Howe's injuries forced him into retirement. Only after having successful surgery on his wrist, and after yearning to play with his family, did Howe actually start up the second phase of his career in the WHA.
But on this night, we were watching what was clearly one of his last games.
Maybe it was sport that he had trouble giving up, or maybe he wanted to play with his two hockey-playing sons, Mark and Marty, we were watching a man who loved the sport that he gave so much to. We were also watching a man whose gray hairs out numbered his dark hairs skate around players literally half his age. I don't remember him scoring that night of my first hockey game, and I definitely don't remember the Gordie Howe Hat Trick that he became known for. But I do remember the helmetless head gliding around the ice and I remember him being an integral part of the playoff team that season.
I've spoken before about that long lost hockey stick that I received from Number 2, Rick Ley. I had the choice of that stick or a puck signed by Gordie Howe (the Whalers practiced at the arena in my home town) But one of my best memories was seeing Mr. Hockey speak to our summer camp back when I was a mere 8 years old. i also remember getting that prized photo with his autograph after his engagement. While I can't find that hockey stick, and I can't find that photo, the memories will last with me forever.
As Gordie Howe retired from the sport, he became a great ambassador all the way up until his health problems caught up to him as he reached his 80's. It saddens me to think about one of the icons of Hartford Whalers hockey being lost, but that sadness is fleeting. But I think the memories of that first night watching hockey and that autograph will last with me forever.