Far be it for me to try and recap the storied careers of two sporting icons, as there are countless others who can do it so much better. Nevertheless, if you were born in a certain era you got to see two immortals that we have lost in the past week. I was one of the fortunate ones to see both Ali and Gordie in their primes.
One was brash, outspoken, both reviled and loved by many, because of his ways. He often referred to himself as “the greatest.” Arguably he was the best boxer of all-time. I first saw Ali live when he trained in Boston in 1965, for his fight with Sonny Liston, in Lewiston, Maine.The other was humble and quiet as a person, but a mean, talented SOB, on the ice. He has been called “the greatest,” by both Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, two others who are usually part of the small group that is named when talking about the best hockey player of all time. My 1st view of Gordie was in 1954, when we got our first television set and he would play on Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada, against the Leafs.
Whatever your feelings about Muhammad Ali, you had to respect the way he stood by his values and beliefs. He never flinched when threatened with prison and ended up forfeiting some of his prime years as an athlete, because of his strength of character in taking stances that he believed in. Unlike many Muslims of today, Ali mostly preached a lifestyle of peace and understanding.
Gordie Howe was more of a laid back personality and numerous people, over the years, have criticized him for not being a stronger advocate for the NHL Players Union(NHLPA today) when, players first tried to organize it in the ’50’s. Though not a leader by personality, his talents helped lead Detroit to 4 Stanley Cup championships and 11 appearances in the Final. He played in a time where defense was first, and while it’s never fair to try and compare different eras, I believe many of his records would still be unbroken if he had played when the game was more wide open as far as scoring.
Ironically, my wife Bev’ and I decided earlier in the week, to start emptying a storage locker we have had here in Vancouver, for the past 12 years. One of the first items we came across was a personalized autograph to Bev’ from Muhammad Ali, that he gave her when he was in Vancouver in 1972 to fight George Chuvalo. Bev’ was working at the Hotel Vancouver , where Ali was staying, and she has been a boxing fan since she was a little girl. Her recollection of Ali was of being a kind, funny person, with a sense of humility, that a lot of the public never got to see. We had the autograph framed and it hung in our houses for a number of years.
Some of the next items we came across were old hockey books that I had saved over the years. The player on most of the covers of these books was Gordie Howe, my favorite of all time. Even today, I have a 16×22 framed colored picture of Gordie hanging in the bedroom. Talk about a major coincidence, considering the passing of both of these men a week apart!
When I was coaching the St. Michael’s Buzzers, Jr. B team in Toronto in 1983-84, Gordie showed up at one of our practices one day. At the end of the practice he asked me if he might come by the dressing room to offer a couple of tips on things to the players, that he had observed in a shooting drill, we had near the end of the practice.
His own humility would not allow him to enter into our dressing room because he said it was ‘our space’, so he stood in the doorway to impart his wisdom to our guys. I happened to be standing beside a player by the name of Kelly Cain, who was 15 at the time, and would go on to be a leading scorer in the OHL with Windsor, after he left St. Michael’s. Kelly didn’t know who Gordie was and when I told him it was Gordie Howe, he said, “oh yeah, the guy with the elbows.” I found it both humorous and sad that Kelly made that comment, because first of all, while it did show his youth, of more significance to me, was the fact that he had no clue about how many scoring records Howe held at that time, but only that he was ‘the guy with the elbows.”
I know that many of you who will receive this message, will have better first-hand stories than I do, about one or both of these men. Nevertheless, I also know, that we all will share the same admiration and respect for what each of them accomplished in their life times, both in the sporting arenas and in life away from those venues.
RIP, Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe.