Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Spokane’s ‘Mr. Hockey’ remembers boyhood teammate, friend Gordie Howe

Gordie Howe scored just one goal in Spokane, and there would be no assist. And the only fight that night was between his goalie and a defenseman whose fame would eventually come as the oldest rookie in National Hockey League history and a cameo in “Slap Shot.”

So, no Gordie Howe Hat Trick for us.

But Tom Hodges will tell you that for anyone who saw it, the goal alone was reward enough.

This was 1959, Spokane’s hockey passion at the time was the pro Comets and the occasion was an exhibition game with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings at the old Coliseum. Hodges and his Comets teammates already trailed 8-0 when Howe picked off an errant Spokane pass at his blue line with the Wings down a man.

“Emile Francis was our goalie,” Hodges recalled, “and Gordie comes down with his right hand on the stick and his left hand holding off a backchecker, just bearing down, and he puts it up in the corner with one hand.

“It was a thing of beauty.”

Of course, with Gordie Howe, even the ones that weren’t things of beauty were still to be admired.

That long-ago game in Spokane was a hockey name-dropper’s Eden. Francis, of course, made his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame through New York as coach and general manager of the Rangers. Terry Sawchuk, the Detroit goalie, also made the hall. His late-game combatant was Connie “Mad Dog” Madigan, the ancient NHL rookie and inspiration for the movie character he played.

And still they’re mere footnotes in any anecdote involving Gordie Howe, who died Friday at age 88 — still and forever Mr. Hockey, a distinction that renders arguments over who’s been the game’s greatest player mere barstool amusement.

Can we lament here that 2016 is a bad year for icons?

But the longer they’re around, the longer we want them to stay – and since Howe was still an NHL All-Star at age 51, even this goodbye seems premature. Surely it seems that way to Hodges, Spokane’s version of Mr. Hockey – defenseman, coach and owner of various incarnations of the Flyers, Comets and Jets before the junior Chiefs came to town.

And Gordie Howe’s childhood friend and teammate from the west side of Saskatoon.

Howe was four years Hodges’ senior at King George School, but they played bantam hockey together for the King George Athletic Club, which in 1942 met the Regina Warriors for the Saskatchewan provincial championship.

“We played in front of a sold-out crowd in a rink in Regina,” Hodges recalled. “Neither one of us had played in an indoor arena before.”

Howe was a defenseman then, Hodges was a 10-year-old goaltender. And his mother, Frances, coached the team – which is to say, she mostly called out the line changes.

“And she always called him, ‘Gordon,’ ” Hodges laughed. “For some reason, that always struck me as funny.”

Pretty sure she was the only coach who ever did.

Which is not to say Gordie Howe didn’t respect Frances Hodges every bit as much as he did, say, Sid Abel or any of his other coaches. Mr. Hockey was always a neighborhood kid.

“When they dedicated Gordie Howe Park and the ball fields and golf course,” Hodges recalled, “he had her sit in the convertible next to him in the parade. She was all embarrassed.”

Howe lived just three blocks from the Hodges home on Avenue I. Beyond the alley behind their house was a field they’d flood for a rink with a hose running from the basement. When the games were over, they’d prop their feet up on the oven door of the Hodges’ old coal stove and watch the steam come off their socks.

“There was no way to describe how great a player he was and how little he practiced,” Hodges said. “I don’t know where the skating came from. Sometimes we’d get a long lunch hour at school and put on our skates and play, but just as many times he’d be there in his overshoes, just slapping pucks against the brick wall.

“One time, I had the goalie pads and bellypad and gloves and he said, ‘I’ll shoot a few at you,’ and I said, ‘Keep them down, Gordie’ – I didn’t have a cup. And he said, ‘I’ll keep them down, don’t worry.’ ”

And he did. That runs counter to the rugged mythology – the goal-assist-fight Howe Hat Trick – and, yes, there was brutality to his game. But mostly, Howe simply took care of himself in a style that made him a national treasure.

“The year he went into the boards in the playoffs and almost died with a fractured skull, it was like the president had been shot,” Hodges remembered. “All of Canada held its breath.”

Instead, he was indestructible. The next year he led the NHL in scoring.

You almost expect Gordie Howe to do it again next year.