As told to: Greg ThomasIn Minnesota, for a while, the Fighting Saints were just as popular as the North Stars. We were doing all kinds of promotions to fill our rink. It was a different league that is for sure. It was much more physical than the NHL. Glen Sonmor used to tell me, “If we don’t stop this fighting, we are going to have to build bigger rinks.” We had a very aggressive team and that was not by accident. There wasn’t a team in the league that had more tough guys than we did. Some nights it won us hockey games and other nights it didn’t. We did get to the finals one season losing to Gordie Howe’s Houston Aeros.
In the WHA, they would introduce the starting players for each team prior to the anthem, as they skated out to the blueline to a certain amount of fanfare. So here we are, playing the Aeros in the finals at home when our announcer says, “And now, wearing number 9 for the Houston Aeros, Gordie Howe.” Our organist begins playing, “The Old Grey Mare Ain’t What She Used To Be”. Gordie scored two goals and cut two of our guys for stitches. Normally after a game, I would meet with Glen in my office to discuss the previous sixty minutes. But after this particular game he was nowhere to be found. I asked the trainer where Glen had disappeared to and he said he was running up to throw the organist out of the organ loft. The organist had pissed off Gordie and Glen.
“He was a player’s player.”
I coached Gordie Howe. It was a complete thrill coaching my idol growing up. The first game I coached Howe, his line was coming up second at the beginning of the game. I hollered down the bench, “Howe you’re up next.” And I thought to myself, how many coaches would love to be in my boots right now. Gordie Howe, not only is he a great guy; if you equate greatness with longevity and superior play, he is the greatest. He was a player’s player. He was simply never any different than any other player, as far as his relationship with the coach was concerned. He was a hard-worker in practice and always team–first with a great sense of humour.
Gordie turned 50 the year of his first training camp with us in Hartford. I thought, “Oh geez, don’t tell me I may have to be the coach to tell Gordie he can’t play anymore..” As thrilled as I was to coach Gordie, I did not want to have to do that; obviously, it didn’t happen with Gordie having a great year.
I used to send all the players a letter in early August saying that training camp begins on such and such a date, don’t forget to pack your sneakers, that kind of thing. In this particular letter, I wrote that we were going to do a 2 mile running course every day before our two practices. I encouraged them all to do some jogging in the weeks leading up to camp so the 2 miles didn’t destroy them for the ice.
There we were about 45 of us at a rink outside of Hartford getting ready for our first run when Gordie comes up to me. He says, “Harry all I ever do to get ready for training camp is make sure that I am within one pound of what I finished at last season. I have never run two miles.”
I told him, not to worry about it, he didn’t have to run. He said, “What do you mean, I don’t have to? You can’t have special rules; I am a part of the team.” I told him to just let me handle it. I walked over to the players and I said, “Alright gentleman, I am making a deal, Gordie Howe does not have to run in training camp. The deal is, if any of you yo-yos are playing for me when you are 50, you won’t have to run then either! Now get the hell out of here and onto that course.” He must have thanked me for a week for taking him off the hook. Because he would have done the run, even though it would have given him shin splints and all the other problems new runners get. He would never put himself before the team.
You can argue who the greatest player is: Howe, Beliveau, Gretzky, Richard and you are correct no matter who you pick. But if you zero your pick in on how long they were great, I think Howe is the runaway winner. He was a perfectionist working hard on his game. He had a great imagination and could think the game of hockey as well as anyone before or after him; combined with his meanness, he was a force to be reckoned with. When one of our players in Hartford took a dirty shot, Gordie would say, “Don’t get them now, wait til next game, or next month, or next year when he doesn’t even remember he played against you.” Bobby Baun, with whom I played junior, tells a great story about Howe. When he played for Toronto his first year, he hit Gordie Howe in the Olympia in Detroit. Howe wasn’t knocked out but he didn’t know where he was as he got to the bench. That incident occurred in 1960. In 1967 or 1968, Baun was playing for the Seals in Oakland against Detroit at the Olympia. Almost the exact same incident happened again. Howe came down, cut across the ice and Baun slipped across to hit him like he did his first year in Toronto. Howe saw him coming and crosschecked him right in the neck. Baun said, “I couldn’t breathe for two minutes. I thought he had broken my neck and when I finally looked up after ten or fifteen seconds of not knowing where the hell I was, Gordie was looming over top of me.” He said, “Now we are even, you son of a bitch.” That was Gordie’s theory and he lived by it. If you asked players if roughing Howe up was a good idea, they would tell you it wasn’t.
GREG THOMAS is an accomplished actor and playwright from Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
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