Detroit-born defenceman Gordie Roberts was just starting his pro career in the late 1970s when he played against Gordie Howe, and then alongside him. The two were teammates as Howe completed the last few seasons of his career with the New England Whalers of the WHA and the Hartford Whalers in the NHL. But the link between the two players started much earlier than that—and those matching first names are no coincidence.
I have two older brothers who were stick boys and played hockey around the Olympia, where Gordie Howe was playing. They were probably 16 or 17 years old, big Red Wings fans, and they outvoted my mom 2-1, so Gordie won out over Clifford. My brothers named me, basically; it was Gordon on my birth certificate.
There was a rink I played in called the Gordie Howe Arena. His two sons were a big part of it, too—they were just a couple of years older than me, and I followed the same path with some of the teams they played on that I played on later. Gordie’s wife, Colleen, was such a big influence on trying to improve youth hockey in the Detroit area, and I was able to reap some of the benefits of that as I got through my teenage years.
My first pro experience was against Gordie Howe. I was with the New England Whalers when I was 18, and that was one of his early years with Mark and Marty in Houston. We had a seven-game series against them in the playoffs. I played some centre and faced off against him, too. I kind of went from, “That’s Gordie Howe, my hero I’m facing off against,” and then each game that went by, it was just a competitive playoff series. Even though I respected him and still had such a wow-factor, I was trying to prove to him that even though I was nowhere near his level, I could still compete against him.
Playing against him definitely was a great thrill—and at the same time, I’m happy I didn’t have stitches over my right eye. The sixth game was in Hartford, and we ended up winning it. We all got on the plane and went to Houston to play a three o’clock game the next day. And Gordie Howe had the first star, scored two or three points and they ended up beating us, like, 3-2. For a guy 46 years old, it showed you how good he still was.
He made you comfortable when you played with him—it was a year or two after that. For a superstar, he was a very humble guy, just like everyone talks about. I was fortunate to room with him a little bit for my first couple of years. I didn’t want to break the curfew with Gordie Howe, that’s for sure.
He didn’t talk a lot about the old days, but he felt pretty comfortable. One year, we had three or four guys who were real jokesters in the dressing room, and Gordie enjoyed being right in the middle of everything and getting a kick out of it. Can you imagine being in the dressing room for 30-some years, seeing every prank and every situation? To him, it seemed like it was fresh all the time.
I think the thing with Gordie Howe was just how consistent he was over the years. A player’s prime is always in their 20s, and I couldn’t imagine, for a player who played against Gordie Howe in his prime, just how good and how tough he was. I mean, I probably saw 50 per cent of what Gordie Howe was really like. I played 20 years myself in pro hockey, and Gordie Howe—who just passed away at 88—is the oldest player, and Jaromir Jagr was the youngest player that I played with (in Pittsburgh).
I haven’t seen Gordie in quite a few years—I ran into him at Joe Louis a few years back when I was scouting with Montreal. I think about how strong he was and how much he battled his health issues over the last 10 years. He went to Mexico and went from being really close to dying, in a sense, and then he was able to have a second wind in life. It just shows you what a battler and what a strong man he was. Muhammad Ali, they said after his organs shut down, his heart ticked for another 30 minutes. I’m sure Gordie would beat him at 31 minutes.
—As told to Shannon Proudfoot