September 12, 2007

Gordie: A Hockey Legend

On a September camping trip I took Roy MacSkimming's unauthorized bio-epic Gordie: A Hockey Legend with me to Tyhee Lake near chilly Smithers, British Columbia. Though the sun went down early and kamikaze moths attacked my nearby Coleman lantern, I quickly was lost in the world of hockey's greatest legend as painted by the literary genius of Mr. MacSkimming. It wasn't until I reached the end of the book that I realized my campfire was little more than glowing embers.

In 2006 the class of all hockey books was Stephen Brunt's Searching For Bobby Orr, which was also an unauthorized homage with no input from the story's main character. MacSkimming's "Gordie," first published in 1994 and re-released in 2003 by Greystone Books, is every bit "Searching's" equal. While your personal interest in the two characters will ultimately sway your own ranking, I will give "Gordie" the edge based on MacSkimming's writing. While Brunt is in every way one of the best sports journalists out there, MacSkimming is a true wordsmith.

Through his own gifts, MacSkimming gives us an incredibly well researched look into "the quintessential hockey player."

"Supremely skilled on the ice, rugged physically, resourceful mentally, tough, even mean when need be, a man who can handle himself so well his opponents keep their distance out of respect, he is at the same time an unassuming gentleman off the ice - modest, decent, self-deprecating, and always, always a credit to his sport, his family and himself. That model has been replicated thousands of times over the years, in small Canadian towns and large Canadian cities. And no one fulfills it better than Howe."

MacSkimming leads us all on Howe's journey to hockey immortality by looking at Howe's previously unexplored youth. To me this is the most fascinating aspect of bios like this. It's often full of stories that autobiographies won't divulge, and of information that otherwise is the closely held knowledge of only the most intimate of friends and family. MacSkimming pieces together a portrait of a terribly shym "backwards" kid with obstructive social skills. He is a terrible student, and early on is weak, frail and often ill. He seems destined to be farm labourer.

Yet he finds his calling in life on the frozen outdoor rinks and ponds of Saskatoon. He spends much of his childhood there, often alone. He learns how to skate, how to handle the puck, and how to play shinny, all on his own experiments with trial and error. Yes, hockey's greatest legend is completely self taught.

We learn of his family life growing up in the Depression years. Gordie's dad Ab was an unforgiving, impatient type, and spent most of his day working where he could in order to provide for his large family. He rarely took part in Gordie's hockey, only seeing him play in a game of any significance many years after his son turned pro in the NHL.

Gordie's mom was a very loving lady who was stretched thin with 9 children. Yet she and Gordie shared a special bond. It was mom who helped Gordie overcome his acute bashfulness. Gordie Howe was very much a momma's boy. She was, in more ways than one, his protector.

Gordie inherited his father's physique, and his ruthlessness, but only in hockey. He combined those traits with his god given hockey talents to become a legend of the ice. He also inherited his mother's kindness and caring to become a legend off of the ice.

The book takes the natural path through to Gordie's turning pro. Still battling his bashfulness and a severe case of homesickness, his first NHL training camp was a complete disaster. He was sent home and never signed. But what most people don't realize is that his first training camp was with the New York Rangers.

He returns, his shot at the big leagues normally extinguished, but he is befriended by a Detroit Red Wings scout, Fred Pinkney. Through some careful foresight and some fortunate luck, Howe is brought into a more favorable situation in Detroit's camp a year later, and agrees to become property of the Detroit Red Wings.

The Gordie we best know, or at least the Gordie we and following generations want to remember, is unveiled in his rise to the top of the NHL. Along the way great stories of hockey lore are told, such as his near death on the ice courtesy of a questionable Teeder Kennedy low hit, his infamous fight with Leaping Louie Fontinato, the Detroit Red Wings Stanley Cup dynasty and the so-called feud with Rocket Richard. It truly is, as The Sporting News reviewed it, "marvelously evocative of the era."

Along the way we also learn of Howe's close relationships in the NHL, namely coach/manager Jack Adams, and teammates Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly. However I found the amount of time devoted to these relationships a bit awkward. While as a hockey researcher I loved reading about these three hockey heroes, it seemed to stray away from Gordie himself at times. He certainly did a nice job of an early history of the NHLPA and dealing with the notion that Gordie Howe may have been most responsible for it not getting off the ground in the 1950s.

The meat of this book is from Howe's childhood through his initial NHL retirement in 1971. The book briefly covers his wife Colleen, who is as an important a character the story of Gordie as there is, and his return with this sons Mark and Marty in the WHA. MacSkimming does a great job of emphasizing Gordie's involvement with his sons lives as opposed to the upbringing Gordie had. But I don't doubt the Howe clan would be disappointed that MacSkimming's book devotes little time to these subjects as a) the rest of the book and b) the Howe's release Gordie Howe: My Hockey Memories.

All in all, this is a great book and is as good as any unauthorized hockey biography. While this book is a fantastic reflection of the Original Six era, the Gordie Howe story is somehow incomplete. While this is truly unfortunate, keep in mind this book was originally a 1994 release, and it was only in the 1990s that Howe, led by his amazing wife, became so much more forthcoming about his past. Though the project extension could have reached another 50-75 pages, a high cost to publishers, a more thorough examination of the Howes in the WHA and beyond sure would have been nice.

I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the book's 2 photo inserts. Rarely do such inserts impress me much, but several of the photos chosen for this project are almost daunting while others are hockey classics.

A job very well done.

Overall Book Rating: 3/5 Second Liner


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