Hockey great Gordie Howe had long since established himself as an elite NHL talent by the time his wife, Colleen, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Marty, in 1954. Arguably the game’s best player, and well on his way to being immortalized as “Mr. Hockey,” the Detroit Red Wings mainstay owned three NHL scoring titles and two league MVP awards at that relatively early juncture in an unfathomably long career that would extend for another 26 years.
Red Wings general manager Jack Adams greeted the happy news in the Howe household by fixing it so that Colleen would have to stay in the hospital a day longer than necessary – not in the interest of mother or child but for fear that their arrival home would divert his star player’s attention from that night’s game. Compare that to the situation earlier this season, when New York Rangers star Rick Nash was allowed to leave in the middle of a game to be at his wife’s side in the delivery room.
Now 86, Howe makes it clear in his memoir that any nostalgia he feels for his beloved sport’s past pertains to the freewheeling way the game was played on the ice, not the imperious manner in which it was governed. Adams, the story’s chief villain, wasn’t exceptional in his disregard for the material and emotional well-being of his players. But he was more proprietary than most – arbitrarily trading players at the slightest hint of insurrection, even to his own roster’s detriment, and issuing (largely ignored) edicts against conjugal recreation – not just during the playoffs but the entire season.
Mr. Hockey touches on the many high points of an illustrious career that saw Howe play well into his fifties – memorably, in the later stages, alongside his sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros and the NHL’s Hartford Whalers. But it’s the elbows-up portrait of the way hockey was run in the pre-union era that packs the greatest punch. It enlivens what otherwise would make for rather dull reading, even by the cliché-ridden, platitude-laden standards of a sports memoir.