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.