Kupelian: Howe the measuring stick for all ages

Vartan Kupelian
Special to The Detroit News
The legendary No. 9 poses for a photo in his Red Wings gear during the 1969 season.

It was just before Christmas during the 1977-78 hockey season. The assignment from the editor was to travel to Hartford to spend a couple days chronicling Gordie Howe’s first season with the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association.

Howe had left the Red Wings six years earlier, and after four seasons with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, the franchise moved to Hartford.

Imagine that. Spend a few days watching Howe and writing about him.

Talk about being wide-eyed, and it’s not something that happened easily or often for me. But this was special. This was Gordie Howe.

I grew up in Detroit and Highland Park. Going to Red Wings games with my father was a ritual. He was a factory worker, but back then, even blue-collars could afford to sit in the upper deck or buy standing room and sit on the steps. That was a different time, in a lot of ways, but always special because we were privileged to see Howe, the greatest athlete I ever covered, and nothing was an inconvenience.

Howe could hit a baseball a mile. He could hit a golf ball two miles. And if somebody dared challenge him on the ice, he could throw that poor guy unfortunate enough to be wearing an opposing jersey into the cheap seats. His nickname among teammates was “Power.”

‘Kind, gentle soul’

I was sitting in a Greek mythology class at Wayne State years ago when the lecturer began talking about contemporary heroic figures, those among us who the Greeks would turn into myths. He surveyed the class, looking for responses. There were none. Disappointed, the professor continued.

“Think about it,” he said. “Somebody with super-human strength. A powerful physique. Someone who combines a menacing appearance with a kind, gentle soul.”

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Still, no response from the befuddled students. Exasperated, the professor said, “Isn’t anybody here a hockey fan? Doesn’t anybody here know about Gordie Howe.”

Of course, I was too embarrassed to admit I was a Howe fan, but clearly that lecture made such an impact on me that I remember it today, some 50 years later. And I thought about it that first day in Hartford when I sat alongside Howe in the Whalers dressing room to tell him the purpose of my trip.

Even at an age nearing 50, the muscles rippled. The powerful sloping shoulders and the forearms were imposing, and the elbows, yes indeed, they were sharp. I remember that menacing is the word my old college professor used.

The mythic hero

Howe was as gracious and nice to a young reporter in Hartford as anybody possibly could be. Charming. The gentle side of the mythic hero in our midst. Everybody I’ve ever encountered over the years who has had a Howe story always talked about that tender side, how he would shovel snow for neighbors or push stalled cars out of harm’s way or greet fans and obligingly sign autographs.

And on the ice, he was simply the greatest, even in those waning years. In Hartford during the 1977-78 season, he scored 62 points (34 goals) in 76 games.

In Detroit, the vote always has been unanimous.

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Who’s the greatest hockey player ever? Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr or Godie Howe?

In my book, it was always Howe because he offered so much more to his team than goals and assists and statistics. He was a protector. He was the man who always evened the score, with a shot or a pass or an elbow to the noggin.

On those bus rides with the Red Wings, to and from hotels and airports, back in the day when writers were allowed to travel with the team, I heard all the stories.

Like the young Red Wings players, I listened and absorbed when the veteran players told Howe stories. I’d even hear Howe tales from opposing players whose admiration for his abilities was unparalleled. The opponents who had to take him on did so with the ultimate respect for who he was and what he did. I never heard any animosity directed toward him that lasted longer than a well-timed upper-cut.

Heroes never die

I have another cherished personal story.

Years ago, and well after the Howe era in Detroit, I was walking through the Wings dressing a couple days before the start of the season. As was the habit, I strolled into the trainer’s room for a cup of too-old and too-strong coffee. There, the equipment manager was sorting through the new equipment — jerseys, pants, socks, sticks.

Suddenly, he hurled something into a large trash bin. I said, “What are you doing?”

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His reply: “I’ve been telling (the equipment manufacturer) for years not to send me any more practice jerseys with No. 9. But they keep sending. I just throw them out!”

That’s when I began to stammer. He looked at me and said, “Why, do you want it?” Sure, I did. He pulled that gold practice jersey out of the bin and tossed it to me.

I still have it, of course, and it may be the last No. 9 with a winged-wheel crest on the chest the manufacturer ever delivered. It’s in a very safe place, and whenever I see it, I think of a legendary and mythic figure that was so cherished in our midst.

Heroes never die.

Gordie Howe will be with us forever.

Vartan Kupelian was a reporter for The News for 34 years and the Red Wings beat writer from 1974-88.

Gordie Howe is seen at the unveiling of his statue at Joe Louis Arena on April 10, 2007.  The hockey legend died on June 10, 2016 at age 88.