A boy has no father. So he cultivates men in his life who might fill that void.
Corny? Of course. Now especially, as I push toward my sixth decade.
But go back to being 10 years old, growing up in the late 1950s, early ’60s. Even those of us who had fathers would latch on to a favorite athlete, seeing him in some fantasy as the man we might hope to become.
In New York, boys then had Mickey Mantle.
In Detroit, we had Gordie Howe.
Howe died Friday, at age 88, the greatest hockey player who ever laced ’em up. Millions of my generation will wipe away a tear or two, guaranteed. Our hearts just took a huge body check, the kind only Gordie could deliver.
In the big picture, to all who idolized him for decades across Canada and the North American hotbeds for the sport, he was Mr. Hockey.
To me, he was Gordie. Truthfully, every Detroit Red Wings fan I ever knew called him by his first name.
For me, calling him Gordie made everything more personal, made me feel even closer to him.
Other cities had their teams and their star players and their championships. But Detroit had the best. We had Gordie.
It’s hard to clearly define his influence on me, on my love for hockey.
To this day, the Red Wings are the only team I live and die with as a sports fan. As for the sport itself, I coached a game on my wedding day. I’ve coached on and off for more than 30 years, including some years of riding my sons pretty hard.
Once my mom asked one of my friends, a hockey fan, if he liked it “like Gary does.”
He replied, “Mrs. Dymski, no one likes hockey like Gary. No one.”
It would be hard to find a Red Wings fan in that era who doesn’t have his or her own special Gordie story.
My cousin’s husband once made a wild U-turn on a busy suburban Detroit road so he could trap Gordie, who was pumping gas, for an autograph.
Then for months my cousin listened again and again as her Tom, about 50 then, gushed about meeting his idol, a gracious, smiling man who so politely agreed to the request.
“Tom still tells that story every chance he can,” my cousin was saying almost 20 years later.
I have my memories, too.
When I was 11 or 12, my team played a game in the Olympia, the Wings’ arena. After I had a shutout victory — believe me, a rare feat for a goalie of my stature — several of us were darting around the arena, acting silly, as kids that age are prone to do.
One of us opened a door. On a training table sat a shirtless Howe. A trainer was giving him treatment for a game later that night.
We were startled, as if before a Greek god.
“Hi, fellas,” Gordie said, smiling. One of us closed the door. We all ran off.
Wish I had that moment back. Maybe he’d have asked how I was doing, patting me on the head.
But, then, I tell myself, what’s acceptable reaction from a mere boy when face-to-face with a Greek god?
My wife and I saw Gordie play his last All-Star Game in Detroit’s new arena at the time. It was 1980, in Joe Louis Arena, a few months before he turned 52. He was in his final National Hockey League season, with the Hartford Whalers.
All the players were introduced individually, and the building shook when Gordie was announced.
Gordie saluted cheering fans with his stick, pivoting four or five times to face each segment of the crowd.
My wife teased, “Gary, I think he looked right at you.”
I was sure he did indeed look right into my eyes. Positive.
About the time I was involved in a bitter newspaper strike in Detroit, back in the mid 1990s, Howe was releasing an autobiography.
I had moved from Michigan by the time he made it to Detroit to promote the book. But one of my former colleagues made a special trip to a book signing and asked Howe to autograph a copy just for me.
“To Gary, keep fighting the good fight. All my best, Gordie.”
Yes, sir, Gordie. Will do.