It was October 1987, a young sportswriter’s first week on the job in Las Vegas.
“Anybody know anything about hockey?” his editor called out in the sports department office. This was a few years before the Thunder of the IHL would drop the puck. The newspaper didn’t have a hockey writer because this was the desert. No Zambonis. It was early October, and it still was 90 degrees outside.
The young sportswriter raised his hand. He knew a little about hockey. His cousins had lived next door to Bobby Hull in the Chicago suburbs. He had knocked the puck around the frozen pond a time or two.
He was the one chosen to interview Gordie Howe.
He was a little nervous about the assignment, because he had seen Howe go after the puck in the corners on TV, and at Chicago Stadium, on the rare occasion his old man could get tickets. No. 9, tougher than a sack of rusty nails. Howe had a thick neck and pointed elbows. What would happen if the young sportswriter asked a silly question, or mispronounced Delvecchio or something?
The two shook hands, like after Game 7 at the old red barn known as the Olympia. Firm. Very firm. No surprise there. Howe smiled and asked the young reporter if he wanted a Miller Lite.
Wait a minute. Did the great Gordie Howe just ask if I wanted a Miller Lite?
He shoots, he scores! As Jim Schoenfeld famously said to Don Koharski in the playoffs, “Have another doughnut.”
There’s something in the sportswriter’s code about not showing enthusiasm while in the company of greatness, or even a forward on the checking line. It’s No. 2 on the verboten list, after no cheering in the press box. Don’t God them up; that’s what the noted sports editor Stanley Woodward would say. Stanley Woodward was Walter Wellesley Smith’s editor. He didn’t God up Red Smith, but he could have.
But when it’s your first week on the job, and Gordie Howe asks if you want a Miller Lite — and it’s only around 8 p.m., and he says his flight doesn’t leave until 11, and there’s a whole case of Miller Lite in the fridge in his suite at the Hilton, it’s hard to hand the ball to the referee and act like you’ve been there before.
I thought about that night when I read that Gordie Howe had suffered another stroke this week.
It was feared it was major, like the one he had a few weeks ago. Now they say it was just dehydration. But when you’re 86, there’s no such thing as a minor medical issue. It’s not like dumping the puck down the ice against the California Golden Seals and waiting for your next shift.
The night he offered me a Miller Lite, Howe had been at a cocktail reception. I guess the Miller Lite people had flown him in. Most of the men were wearing expensive suits; they didn’t exactly look the type who would toss an octopus onto the ice during the playoffs after Howe or Alex Delvecchio or one of the Mahovlich brothers had lit the red lamp.
I remember the publicist whispering something in Howe’s ear, and then the next thing you know the three of us were leaving the stuffy cocktail reception, and then the next thing you know after that, Gordie Howe was popping open a cold Miller Lite and talking old-time hockey.
He had played pro hockey at the highest (NHL) and next-highest (WHA) levels for 32 seasons. Thirty-two! In 2,421 games he tallied 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists, 2,589 points and 2,418 penalty minutes. His NHL records of 801 regular-season goals and 1,850 points stood until Wayne Gretzky came along.
Gretzky was pretty good, too. But when he played, the scores often were 6-5 and 5-4. When Gordie Howe played, the checking was a lot closer, and the scores usually were 2-1 or 1-0. Every game seemed like a playoff game.
Eddie Shore. Toe Blake. Gordie Howe. Old-time hockey.
I don’t remember a whole lot about our conversation, other than Howe did not want to talk about himself. He just wanted to talk hockey.
He talked of how the game had changed. The game would change some more, because they didn’t have a team in Phoenix and two in Florida in 1987. There were 21 teams then; there are 30 now, and soon there may be a team in Las Vegas.
There were only six teams for much of Howe’s storied career. You knew all the players. Even the backup goalies.
I remember Gordie — that’s what he said to call him — saying that when he played, you could turn out the lights in the building, and you would still know whose line was on the ice from the sound of how they skated.
I remember writing that down.
I remember Gordie Howe asking if I was sure I didn’t want a Miller Lite.
And though you are not supposed to God them up, or cheer in the press box, I remember wishing I had one of those cellular phones that had just come out, the ones that looked like bricks, so I could call my buddies back in the hockey towns and tell them what I was doing.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.