John Garrett features in one of the seminal moments of Gordie Howe’s career—it’s just unfortunate that the goaltender-turned-broadcaster appears in those immortal photos on the wrong side of Howe’s 1,000th goal. Not long after that, the two of them ended up sharing a dressing room with the Whalers.
I remember, we were watching it and he had 999 goals for a number of games, and he got hurt—his arthritis was acting up and he didn’t play for a couple of games. Then he didn’t score in a couple of games, and I’m thinking, “Oh, please, Gordie, get your 1,000th with somebody else. Don’t put me in the history books.” Sure enough, we’re playing in Birmingham, Ala., and my friend Dale Hoganson is standing beside him, and the puck comes out to Gordie and he whacks it out of the air and it’s in. He was so skilled, and you knew he was going to get it pretty quick, and it was in.
I posted on my Facebook page and on Twitter a picture somebody sent me. The picture is autographed, “To Big John. Thank you. In friendship, Gordie.” If you’re going to let in a 1,000th goal, Gordie’s was the one I let in.
He was in Houston and I played against him in the WHA with the Birmingham Bulls. Then he and Mark and Marty went from Houston to New England, and I got traded to New England. I got to play with him in his last NHL season, and at 52, it was amazing how he could compete and be one of the guys. We’d been in the WHA as the New England Whalers, and we came to the NHL and nobody thought we’d do anything—we made the playoffs that year, and Gordie was a big part of it. He made the team work. Everybody knew what a star he was, yet he was so humble and such a great guy that he fit right in, and he made sure everybody didn’t treat him differently, and there was no friction or animosity in the room.
It was amazing the way he was so humble. You look back at times like this in your career, and it was a thrill to play in the NHL, it was a thrill to play professional hockey, it was a thrill to play in the WHA, and then you look at the guys you played with. You just go up and down, and what a thrill it was—and the star players who were just ordinary people. And especially Gordie, a Prairie kid who never lost that humility.
It was such an easy transition, because he made it that way. Mark and Marty were still very young, yet Gordie was just one of the guys—not “Mr. Hockey,” not Gordie the star with 1,000 goals. It was, “Okay, I’m playing right wing and I go up and down, I’ll do my job and you do yours, I’ll help you out.”
Back then, there were no strength coaches or nutritionists, no specialized defensive coach or power play coach. And Gordie, at 52, was stronger than most of the young guys just coming out of junior. It was amazing the way he took care of himself and was able to compete. He had arthritis in his hands and still, he was just amazing.
I remember going out with Gordie for lunch pre-game; we were in Edmonton, on the road. We didn’t get much meal money then, but it didn’t matter anyway, because before every game, Gordie had fried chicken with French fries. Now, the nutritionists would go crazy over something like that. He was superstitious, and that was his meal.
In the dressing room, he was Gordie Howe, and everybody listened when he spoke, but he didn’t speak very much. He was just one of the guys. It was amazing. And he made it that way, intentionally. “Well, I’m just one of the guys, and here we go.” There was the respect that Mark and Marty had for him. The three of them playing together, it was a real eye-opener, and you look back now and see how awkward that must have been—and yet it wasn’t. Mark and Marty are such good individuals who love the game and respected the game. You look at them, and they’re a reflection of Gordie.
—As told to Shannon Proudfoot
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Gordie Howe (right) sends Toronto's Gordie Hannigan into the boards, and into a ref, during Stanley Cup semi-finals in 1952.