On Gordie Howe

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It didn’t hit me that Gordie Howe was gone until the first intermission of Sunday night’s Stanley Cup Final game in San Jose, Calif., when SAP Arena, the NHL, the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins honored his life.

Howe’s monumental legacy may never be matched – maybe only by Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, or maybe Sidney Crosby. And it’s difficult to put into words exactly what his legacy truly is, when you’ve never witnessed it in its prime.

But I got a glimpse of the greatness of Gordie Howe in March, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, when I was assigned to cover the Detroit Red Wings’ birthday tribute to the NHL Hall of Famer.

What struck me was how everyone simply stopped to watch Howe get ushered through the corridor of Joe Louis Arena on a golf cart. It was like a royal procession. Even players from the Buffalo Sabres stopped kicking a soccer ball or hopped off an exercise bike to stand at attention for one of the NHL’s giants.

Howe, however, was frail. The look in his eyes was distant. Even surrounded by his family, he needed help walking through the doors and hallways at Joe Louis. When he was shown on the big screen inside Joe Louis Arena, his son Mark held up his hand, as a means for Howe to acknowledge the crowd.

Tears streamed down peoples’ faces when 18,000 people sang “Happy Birthday” with Karen Newman, the Detroit Red Wings’ anthem singer. The crowd roared. The Red Wings presented Howe with a gorgeous birthday cake for his 88th birthday.

Yet there was something off-center about it. It wasn’t a joyous occasion.

As I watched Howe that night, I felt his greatness, but I also felt pity. A titan of the sport was in the twilight of his life.

While everyone gave him the berth of respect, one that comes with being an idol, a legend, a transcendent superstar, did he have any real idea where he was or what he was doing that night? Or, would all the love and the good vibes in the building would somehow sustain him for a little bit longer?

I drove back to Toledo that night with an empty feeling. Glad I finally got to be in the presence of the great Gordie Howe, but wondering where the vitality was, where the joy was that was in so many photos and videos and what I had been told by people, the memories of the times they watched or met Howe. Rach, I told myself. Let’s be real here. He’s 88 years old, he suffered a stroke, he has dementia. He may not have a lot of time left.  

Gordie Howe died on Friday, June 10. In the fall of 2014, my editors told me to begin writing an obituary for him, after he had suffered a stroke.

That obituary sat for 19 months in my file, and while you think you may never have to use it, when you dust off that file and begin line-editing it and updating it for timeliness and plugging in all the information … you just wonder if you fulfill the respect it deserves, and if it will attempt to do it any sort of justice to a person’s rich life.

 

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On Kevin Stevens

So I’m sad today. The Boston Globe reported this morning that former NHLer Kevin Stevens is being held on federal drug charges and will be arraigned Tuesday in Massachusetts.  He’s charged along with another man with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute oxycodone, and is in federal detention.

Kevin Stevens was one of the players on the Pittsburgh Penguins whom I grew up watching. He was the gregarious Bostonian who probably threw the best parties of anyone on your block or in your college dorm, or the guy who lived next door to you and always offered you a beer after a hot afternoon of mowing the lawn and kept you laughing into the night … and a super-talented hockey player – a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a U.S. Olympian, an NHL All-Star. kevinstevens

I’m not sad because of Kevin Stevens’ legal troubles – I’m sad after considering what brought it to this point, that Kevin Stevens probably could never get control of himself. I’m sad because I will never forget his arrest in 2000 for soliciting a prostitute and possessing drug paraphernalia – crack cocaine was found on the scene.

I’m sad because I will never forget when I met him in 2009 while covering the American Hockey League, I remember him as engaging and super-funny, and I appreciated that whenever he saw me, he took the time to talk to me. But I also remember thinking, “don’t kid yourself, this guy has a lot of problems.”

And I think back to the moment it all likely changed for Kevin Stevens, when he was injured in the 1993 playoffs – when his head hit the ice after a check on New York Islander Rich Pilon, and when he came up, half of his face was caved in. He needed major reconstructive surgery, had five metal plates put in his face and had bone fragments removed.

I put that injury to Stevens up there in gruesomeness – and potential psychological after-effects – with the injury Clint Malarchuk sustained in 1989, when his neck was sliced open by a skate blade.

Clint Malarchuk admits he never got the psychological help he needed – likely to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. And with that in mind, it begs a question: Did Kevin Stevens ever get the help he needed after that injury, or did he take the “I’ll be fine” attitude?

Or, in that era of the NHL, the early 1990s, was the help even there?

Earlier this year, CTV’s Rick Westhead did a great, insightful, saddening piece on the long-term effects of concussions on retired NHL players – in particular, Mike Peluso.

From the CTV piece:

Did team doctors put the financial interests of their employers ahead of the health concerns of players? And did NHL executives put their collective heads in the sand when it came to learning more about the dangers of repeated head trauma, and about possible rule changes that might have better protected players, even if it meant popular tough guys were sidelined longer between fights?

Watching it made me consider the era of the NHL that I grew up watching, a 10-year span that began in 1988, and what players went through – and how they were (or weren’t) helped afterwards. They were almost chattel, commodities that could be bought and traded and dumped.

And because so many of them loved the game, or needed to pay bills, they kept going.

And now, we’re starting to see the long-term effects these injuries had on the players. More importantly, on the people these players had to be once they stepped off the ice for good. It’s hard to say for certain whether or not Kevin Stevens’ latest legal issue is a result of that, but it’s not hard to wonder if it contributed to it.

I hope Kevin Stevens gets the help he needs.

Now, everybody’s watching the Chicago Blackhawks

Updated: Give Andrew Shaw credit for taking ownership of what was an ugly situation:

***

“I’m so glad the Chicago Blackhawks are a tolerant organization…”

Said no one, ever.

After Tuesday night, that divide only deepens. It’s now been proven that the Blackhawks espouse misogyny (Garret Ross), sexual deviance (Patrick Kane) and now, homophobia.

The whole English-speaking world saw what Andrew Shaw said in the late moments of Chicago’s 4-3 loss to St. Louis in a Western Conference quarterfinal series.

I’m not going to repeat it, but Google it yourself (or click here) and make up your own mind as to whether or not he used a homophobic slur.

Shaw said he didn’t remember what he said.

That’s an overused defense. I usually say that when I’m lying.

In an ideal world … Andrew Shaw could go against the grain of his organization. In an ideal world, he makes a public apology, admits what he says was wrong and insensitive, and inappropriate, ‎and vows to educate himself on societal issues facing the LGBT community.

But wait, this is the Blackhawks. That probably won’t happen.

This is an organization that employs Patrick Kane.

And – it might just be a case of awful timing – an organization that gave away aprons the same week it was announced Ross, a minor-league player in Chicago’s farm system,  was being charged with revenge porn, a charge later dropped on a technicality.

Bad timing, bad connotation.

It’s fair to ask, is the Blackhawks management doing anything to educate its players and employees about societal issues?

On a macro level in sports … is anyone doing anything in any organization?

***

Watching Andrew Shaw yell whatever it was he did (and we have a pretty good idea of what he said), made me think of a similar talk I had a few years ago with a college hockey player, who now plays professionally. It came in light of another incident in which a professional athlete used a homophobic slur.

“Do you ever say that on the ice?” I asked him.

He sighed. “Sometimes, yeah.”

“Do you ever think about what you say?”

Some things, he said – almost in a defensive, yet resigned tone – come in the heat of the game.

I wasn’t going to take that for an answer.

“Well, think about it next time.” Then, I laughed, and offered him some vulgar advice. “It’s okay to say someone’s a ‘f#%&er’ … but it’s not okay to say what that guy said last night.”

We laughed – I think he was a little surprised that, being a woman, I said such a dark word. I was comfortable with cussing around him, but I hope I helped Will think a little differently after that conversation.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I did.

***

Let’s be real: it’s 2016, but sports are not a kind, welcoming or tolerant environment, despite the advances that have been made for inclusion. This, many still believe, is a man’s domain.

Want to see a gender gap? Want to see a hostile realm? Turn on or buy a ticket to a major-league sporting event, and count the number of women you see and find out what their role is in the game.

It might make me a hypocrite that I give my money to professional sports teams, or that I cover sports for a living, but that’s also something we as a society have to do – hold the people we cover and financially support to a certain standard.

And we’re discussing a realm in which people attempt to justify what some people believe is inherent and acceptable in sports – such as homophobic/misogynistic/racist/sexist/deviant behavior – by saying, “Oh, it’s just part of the culture.”

No, it’s not acceptable.

Do you discriminate or lampoon others in everyday life because of their race? Because of their gender? Because of their ethnic background?

It shouldn’t be done in a confined space such as an ice rink or a football field, either. Because, as Andrew Shaw and the Blackhawks are finding out, all of us are watching.

 

An appreciation of Craig Adams

Craig Adams retired from hockey earlier this week, and released a statement via the NHLPA announcing his departure.

You never saw his name in the box scores or in the headlines, but it’s etched twice on the Stanley Cup. Because Craig Adams was one of the grinders. And probably one of the more unique guys in hockey.

He was born in Brunei.

He was the last-ever draft pick for the Hartford Whalers before the team moved to North Carolina, a ninth-round pick. There aren’t even nine rounds in the NHL Entry Draft anymore.

He was a waiver pickup from the Chicago Blackhawks, three months before the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

He was an NHLPA player rep – which, in my pro-union household, counts for something.

He is a smart guy. He went to Harvard.

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(I just thought that photo was funny.)

Craig Adams left hockey with some unspectacular numbers. But, as I sometimes said during Penguins games:

“Every time Craig Adams scores, an angel gets its wings.”

So, 62 angels got their wings in the course of Craig Adams’ 14 seasons in the NHL.