Felix Gatt didn’t know a thing about hockey when he first moved to Detroit from Malta. But as a teen in the 1950s he and his brother would go to Olympia Stadium all the time to watch live events—be it wrestling, basketball or hockey—and try to snag autographs from the star athletes. Then he met Gordie Howe, already a Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings, and the two eventually became best friends off the ice.
Q: Where did you first meet Gordie Howe?
A: The first time I met Gordie was in the 50s. I was 17. The Red Wings were at old Olympia and they used to let us go in the basement and the players would sign for us. Terry Sawchuk, the goalie, was miserable. I had a program that every player had signed, except him. Every time I asked Terry, he told me to get lost. Gordie heard him one time and he asked Terry to come over. He said to him: “What does Jack Adams tell us?”—Adams was the GM—“He tells us to sign for the fans because they pay our way.”
Q: Was Howe that nice?
A: Well, then he said [to Sawchuk]: “If you don’t sign it, I’ll break both your arms and legs. You’ll never play hockey again.” So Terry took the program from my hand and was cussing me out. He signed it, and I still got it.
Q: How did it transition from Howe chewing out Sawchuk to you becoming friends?
A: I was always at the signings. I’d go up to him and shake his hand. He used to ask me, “Are you sitting down or standing up?” I was 5’4.
I kept going to the signings and when they got the bobbleheads— this is about 1996—that was when Colleen (Howe’s wife) was starting to get sick. He asked me if I can help him. It was a lot of work opening up the bobbleheads: get them out of the plastic, taking them out of the box, he’d sign them and put them back in.
One time, on his 75th birthday, in my office I helped him sign 4,000 bobbleheads. I would start putting them back in the boxes as soon as he signed them—and he would stop me. He wanted to see four or five tables loaded with bobbleheads, all signed, before he would let me put them back in the boxes.
A: So you went to his signings as a teenager, but didn’t become friends until about twenty years ago?
Yeah. It started by helping with the bobbleheads. He used to bring Colleen with us. My wife, Rita, would come. That’s when we started to become friends. He started to drop by my house and mess around with the grandkids. He played street hockey with them because he stayed with us all the time. And he wouldn’t go easy on them.
He used to drive to the house to come over and they [neighbourhood kids] would recognize his van. The minute they saw the van, the kids would be knocking on the door. The whole subdivision. Sometimes we would be eating dinner and my wife would tell the kids to come back in five minutes. If they were hockey players, he would ask them to tell him how they shoot.
Q: Did you ever play hockey with him? Are you a hockey player?
A: No. I can’t skate. But one time, I was in Vancouver with him at a White Spot restaurant. All of a sudden, I looked up and saw twenty people lining up in front of me at my table. I asked them what they wanted and they said, “We want your autograph. Gordie told us you’re the Russian goalie that stopped him on a breakaway.” And he just sat there laughing.
Q: Did you go to the game he played with the Detroit Vipers at age 69?
A: Oh yes. I took my grandkids with me. That was at the Palace [of Auburn Hills]. One shift, he almost scored a goal. People were shouting “Gordie! Gordie!”
Q: Did you make it to every Red Wings game?
A: We used to make every playoff game. The Red Wings would tell me to call them before we come so they could have more security. We used to go to the press box to watch the game and would park in the players parking lot. By the time I got from the parking lot to the press box, the game was almost over. He would stop and talk to everybody.
Q: How did the reception from fans meeting Gordie Howe differ in the United States compared to Canada?
A: Here in Detroit, they loved him. He’s the one that brought the Stanley Cups. But I think the Canadians realize he’s one of their own. There, he was an icon. He was something more to them.
Q: When you were together on the road, what would you talk about?
A: We talked about family. When we were on the road, he’d call the caregiver three times every day to see how Colleen is doing. Colleen was a beautiful lady. The Friday she passed away [in 2009], he called me. Normally we’d start a conversation with a joke. That day, he told me Colleen just passed away. I picked up my wife and we went over to see him. Because she died at home, they had to have the coroner find that she was dead before they could take her to a funeral home. He said his goodbye, kissed her and we went for a walk. We were both crying.
Q: Was there a similar time when Gordie Howe was there for you?
A: I had a stroke seven years ago. He used to be there every day at the hospital here in Troy, Michigan. You know what, every time he came, the whole darn hospital was in my room. All the doctors and all the nurses would come. They weren’t there for me! He used to talk to them. Word would get around and every surgeon would come to shake his hand. Gordie would sign something for them.
Q: What was his signature like?
A: He used to practice his signature. At first, he used to sign “Gordie Howe.” Colleen told him, “Your name is not Gordie. It’s Gordon.” So ever since then he signed it “Gordon Howe.” You see the ‘o’ and ‘n’ stretched out. You don’t see anything signed “Gordie Howe” unless it’s an old signature. Colleen would not let him.
Q: So a “Gordie Howe” signed shirt is much rarer than a “Gordon Howe” one?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: Do you have any stuff signed “Gordie Howe”?
A: I don’t think so.
Q: What were the quiet times with him like?
A: He was at my office every day at my printing company. He would come and chat. He was always looking for something to sign. Or I used to visit him after work. Every time I opened the door, it was always unlocked.
We lived about 15 minutes from each other. After Colleen died, he used to come to my house. Gordie liked to watch movies and so does my wife. I would go be bed at 9 p.m. and they would be sitting up watching movies together. He’d be drinking beer and having apple pie. They’d sit on the couch until 1 a.m. watching movies. He loved apple pie. He used to have it after breakfast.
[Rita, Gatt’s wife, passed away Sunday night.]
Towards the end, after he started getting dementia, he’d start to lose his way. He would call to ask “Where’s your street?” and he’d be five miles away. I told him, “Stay there and I’ll come get you.”
Q: When was the last time you saw him?
A: It was two weeks ago. I went down to see him. We were sitting outside. He came out in a wheelchair. He squeezed my hand. And then he fell asleep. He wasn’t up for even an hour.
Q: Can you imagine a future Hall of Fame player today becoming best friends with a regular fan? It’s like Sidney Crosby signing some teenager’s stick today and them becoming best friends 30 years from now.
A: It is. I went all over with him and got to meet Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, everybody. I got pictures in the basement. I tried in my mind to sort things out—from helping with bobbleheads to going to his signings to joking around with him to becoming best friends—how did it happen? I don’t know. Some people would ask if we were brothers. He’d say, “Yeah. There were nine of us. He didn’t get much to eat.”
I lost my big brother.