Back in the day, before the Internet was invented, I used to write a lot of letters. And I would always wind them up with the same notation: “I advise you to hang onto these letters,as I intend on being famous some day, and these might be worth a lot of money.”
Okay, okay… I know. My life might be as obscure as that of a field mouse in an abandoned farmhouse somewhere in the Appalachians. I’m not famous now and my hopes for future glory lessen by the day as the neurons disconnect and my fuses blow. So my chances for glory are slim. Someone once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Or maybe it was that every American life has a second act. I get confused.
Gordie Howe’s life had a second act. His life remained a constant in my own consciousness as his fame was such that he never escaped the media for very long. After his first retirement after twenty five years as a hockey player he was given a front office job in the Detroit Red Wings’ organization. Oh, it paid well enough but for someone with a work ethic that was developed in Depression-era Saskatchewan, Gordie never saw it as a real job. “I got the mushroom treatment,” he said after one year on the rubber-chicken circuit and the go-round of shake-and-grin photos. “Every once in awhile they’d open the door and throw some shit on me.”
The only problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.
My own hockey equipment still comes out several times a week, even during the summer months. Although a neutral party might not see a lot of productivity in my own retirement, there is at least some motion. My wife says that I have a one-track mind and maybe a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome, but I think that she just wants to piss me off.
Which she does very well, by the way.
I sometimes wonder what my neighbours think of a sixty year old man who plays hockey continuously, even in the summertime. Mine is a genteel neighbourhood and no one plays hockey. Maybe one guy, a hematologist, who plays once a week in a mixed league, but that’s not really hockey. No offense intended. And he was kind enough to refer to me one time as ‘Mr.Hockey.’
“Yeah”, I retorted, “but without the talent, skill, strength, fame and career of the real ‘Mr.Hockey.’
Gordie Howe, of course, was the real Mr. Hockey. He represented the times I respect so much and which are now gone forever. Growing up in the Depression and from a large, hard-working but poor family and living in Saskatoon, he didn’t receive his first skate until his mother paid two dollars to an even-poorer neighbour for a burlap bag full of odds-and-ends. And yes, I did say skate. Without the ‘s’. In the bag was a pair of adult skates that Gordie had to share with an older sister until he saved up and bought the second one from her for a quarter. His father didn’t register him for an organized league and then carry his equipment bag into the arena. Needless to say the old man didn’t hire a personal trainer and a sports psychologist in order to hurry Gordie on his way to stardom. Gordie’s dad never thought his son would amount to anything because he was “so shy and bashful and backward.” He never even saw him play until Gordie had put in several years at the National Hockey League level. Much to my dismay modern hockey has become an expensive and exclusive endeavour whose expenses almost guarantee that it is restricted to the upper-middle class. I’m a guy who gave up tennis at the age of thirteen when the local playground started insisting that all players wear whites, like some exclusive club in apartheid South Africa. And I still feel more comfortable bashing golf balls across an empty field instead of driving a cart around a manicured golf club. Although I am a grumpy old man, I am a grumpy old egalitarian man.
Of course, no one is perfect. Gordie’s advice to aspiring hockey players was to work at hard, manual labour jobs during the summer months, by saying that the best training for a hockey player was at the end of a shovel. Looking back on it, while this did toughen me up physically, it never qualified me for much more than digging trees on landscaping jobs and drilling holes on Alberta highways in order to install guard rails.
Gordie’s second act was his comeback playing for the Houston Aeros in the upstart World Hockey Association of the 1970s. In other words he did go back to doing what he did best. And he was still able to play in that uniquely violent, don’t-cross-me, elbow- smack- to the head manner which even his own son said would have him suspended most of the time in these kinder, gentler, politically-correct times.
And what’s not to like about someone slightly out-of-step with the times ?