Friday morning, I woke up to a text from my friend telling me that hockey legend Gordie Howe had passed away. When I loaded Twitter and Instagram, several accounts confirmed the sad news. My dad, Lee Dravis, has been following hockey his whole life, but he’s not on social media so, of course, I was the one to break the news to him. I don’t think I had ever seen him look so shocked before, which confused me, because I had never heard him talk about Howe.
But then he told me a story about one time sharing the ice with Howe, and it was too good not to share. Take it away, Dad.
I met Gordie Howe once in the 80s, and his reaction was one of disappointment.
I grew up on skates, playing pond hockey as a kid in New Jersey. As I got older, I played a lot less than I liked as frozen lakes and friends to play with became scarce. But, as I entered my 30s, I found an adult league playing about an hour away. I was a fair-to-middling forward for the Hornets, playing late at night with other fair-to-middling doctors, contractors, and chefs.
Someone in the league knew someone who knew someone else who knew Gordie Howe. I’m not sure how it came about, but one Saturday when we came to practice at Washington’s Fort Dupont Arena the team had a surprise. Suiting up with us for our practice was Gordie Howe.
Gordie sat mostly alone at one end of the locker room, tying his skates. Most of us were too intimidated to speak to him. When we hit the ice, Gordie donned a whistle and led us in drills. No one did very well, as I recall, as we were pretty nervous about our guest coach. I joined in the stop-and-starts, backwards skating, and puck agility drills. At least I didn’t fall down.
We started 2-on-1 drills. A winger sent a breakout pass to Gordie, who would either pass back to the wing or (hysterically) keep the puck himself and make mincemeat of the hapless defenseman and goalie. When he did pass, Howe’s puck movement was fast. And his passes were pinpoint. I was amazed as I watched him.
Then, it was my turn. On rubber legs, I picked up the puck at the far blue line and built speed. I was one of the fastest skaters on the team that season (which probably says more about the team than my speed) and I wanted to impress Mr. Howe. Big mistake.
Gordie mistook my speed for talent. He corralled my weak pass and snapped it cross-ice back to me as I swung toward the net. The D-man and goalie, completely in awe of Gordie, were out of position. All I had to do was tip it, deflect it, just breathe on it to put it in the net.
The puck came at me, well, faster than I can tell you. It’s one thing to sit up high and watch NHL passes. It’s another to see them coming at you. The puck was a black blur, a streak and it was all mine. I lowered my stick to the ice, the perfect (if a bit hot) pass coming to my blade from Mr. Hockey himself.
I watched the puck skim past me before my stick was 6 inches from the ice. It boomed off the dasher. Aghast, I looked toward Gordie, hoping for mercy, maybe a “nice try!”
Gordie Howe looked at me for a second, then tucked in his chin and shook his head. He skated away for the next drill.
Before he left, he gave us some tips. And though he didn’t look at me when he said it, I’ll always remember, “Keep your stick on the ice!”
Howe is the only player to compete in pro hockey in six decades. When he wasn’t playing the sport, he was out there somewhere coaching others how to be better. When he wasn’t coaching, he was at the rink watching games. Howe’s love and dedication to the sport were boundless. Beyond the four Stanley Cups, six Hart Trophies, and 1,850 points, Howe’s kindness and passion for the game will be his lasting legacy.
Just ask my dad.
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