Krupa: Howe’s greatness made of strength and humility

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Red Wing legend Gordie Howe holds his dog, Rocket, while hanging out near the benches before practice at Joe Louis Arena, May 22, 2008.

Detroit — Gordie Howe was square-jawed, authentic and credible.

There was not a splinter of pretense about him.

The great Red Wings player was also humble and capable of enormous grace. He was, off the ice, what other men used to like to call “a true gentleman.”

In his era, for men now of a certain age, he established an archetype of masculinity: Physical strength paired with kindliness, significant accomplishment with unpretentiousness, mastery with respect, aggression with compassion.

It was what fathers and mothers wanted to see in their sons.

For a post-World War II generation of baby boomers, he was a role model worthy of emulating.

To watch him on and off the ice was to learn important lessons in life, especially for boys growing towards manhood in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s.

Howe was partly like the Marlboro Man, that silent, rough-hewn pitchman for cigarettes in television commercials that catapulted the brand to the top of sales by 1972. He was also a bit like Gary Cooper, the late movie actor of the 1930s through the 1960s who contributed to a paradigm for the American male, the strong, silent type.

Howe lived a hard life on the Canadian prairie of the Great Depression. He was the toughest guy in a hard-hitting, dangerous sport.

When he took to the ice, it was as if one of Cooper’s characters, perhaps Will Kane, the marshal “High Noon,” showed up on a dusty main street of some Old West town with a badge on his chest, a long-barreled revolver in the holster at his side. A man capable of handling whatever the situation required, a look of restrained danger in his eyes.

Like Cooper, Howe was natural and genuine.

But it was how Howe was different that evidenced his greatness as a man, a height he achieved coincident with his greatness on the ice.

Deflecting praise

Howe had a mischievous sense of humor, which he sometimes inflicted on himself, especially in response to the praise he so justly deserved for his domination of the National Hockey League from just after the end of World War II through the 1960s.

Sometimes self-deprecating and almost always self-effacing, Howe acted as though one might have accomplishments worthy of boasting, but to do so was ignoble.

In receiving praise, he deflected it gently to those who helped with the achievement that engendered it, or made a humorous reference to some recent failing to help restrain the ego and show the world a greater understanding of humanity.

He was the doting, successful father, who raised offspring of accomplishment and character.

The son of famous men sometimes have it rough. But one of Howe’s, Mark, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, among the few greatest defensemen of his era.

Another, Marty, played the game to considerable effect. The third, Murray, is a doctor.

He was a husband so loyal that he pushed his wife Colleen’s strengths to the fore, whether as his agent, his business partner or a candidate for Congress.

She spurred no insecurity in him because Howe knew himself.

He also was the guy who after scoring a milestone goal in his career posed with a puck with “700” painted on it, later handing the puck that actually went into the net to a longtime season ticket customer who struggled with his sight and other complications of diabetes.

Upon hearing of his death Friday, Allen Moore of Northville, the nephew of the man who received the puck, e-mailed, “A true gentleman off the ice and a legendary player on it.”

Encounter to remember

In the early 1960s, my brother had a chance encounter with Howe, while playing hockey at the old outdoor rink that used be part of the Butzel parks and recreation facility on the West Side.

As my brother Tim leaned over lacing his skates, he recalls seeing two large men’s shoes suddenly in front of him and hearing a voice.

“Excuse me, young man.”

It was a different era and my brother rose immediately to greet an adult, making his mother proud.

“It was Gordie Howe and he was speaking to me,” my brother said.

“Do you know where the Lamplighters are?” he recalled Howe asking.

“I was awestruck, simultaneously stunned by my hero’s voice and the softness and the gentlemanliness of that voice and his demeanor. This was Gordie Howe and I guess I was not expecting such a gentleman.

“It was a Saturday morning and I was 11 years old and was getting ready to play a pee-wee game. It was snowing at Butzel rink that day.

“ ‘The Lamplighters, do you know where they are?’

“ ‘They are on the ice, Mr. Howe. They are playing now, sir.’

“ ‘Thank you, young man.’ ”

We later learned Marty and Mark Howe were playing for the Lamplighters.

“In one move, he put out his hand and shook mine and with his other hand grabbed my forearm,” my brother said. “He turned to the rink and stepped out into the snow.

“He was gone. That quick.

“My hand, hell, the lower part of my arm had disappeared into his huge hands. They were bigger than my Dad’s!

“Gordie Howe had spoken to me. Gordie Howe had been nice to me!

“I don’t recall the name of my Pee-Wee team, but that meeting of my hero, my Gordie, is as crystal clear as if it just happened. I can hear the voice, I can feel that grip.

“I remember the niceness of our encounter.”

Lesson learned by an 11-year-old. No matter how big you get, how formidable you are or the loftiness of your accomplishments, kindness and compassion are key elements of life.

It was Howe’s expression of manhood, and his singular gift to many young men who are no longer young.