Mike Rogers reminisces about his days as Gordie Howe's teammate

 

Former Whalers teammate still calls Mr. Hockey his hero

 
 
 
 
Province sports columnist Tony Gallagher takes a look back at "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe in this video with Jonathan McDonald.
 

Province sports columnist Tony Gallagher takes a look back at "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe in this video with Jonathan McDonald.

Photograph by: File, Getty images

Heroes. We all have them. All need them. All exult in their triumphs, despair in their times of trial; their aging, the inevitable diminishment.

Mike Rogers is no different. Three 100-point NHL seasons, 13 years of NHL and WHA hockey doesn’t rob someone of that sense of reverence, of wonder, of awe. That is forever. It is universal.

When you talk of one man, Rogers becomes a kid again. That’s what heroes do for us. All of us.

“Honestly,” admits the long-time colour man on Calgary Flames’ radio broadcasts, “the last article in the paper, I couldn’t read it. I don’t want to hear it. Gordie Howe was my hero. Is my hero. And I understand life can do this to a person.

“But …

“I don’t want to think about, I don’t want to listen to people talk about it. Just yesterday somebody said ‘Oh, I hear Gordie took a turn for the worse.’ And I almost broke down.

“That’s how much the man means to me. It’s an awful, awful thing.”

All of us have been holding our breath since learning Mr. Hockey had suffered the worst of a series of strokes on Oct. 26th that paralyzed his right side. Already suffering from dementia, Howe can neither walk nor speak now.

At such times, hard times, we tend to glance back. Remember those slope shoulders, the body of a blacksmith. The power. The glory. Even at 50, in Hartford, when Rogers was a star-struck teammate in Connecticut.

“His nickname, even then, was Power. And there’s a reason he was called that. You’d look at him and go ‘Wow!’ He commands so much respect,” said Rogers.

“I thought of him as Superman. When we’d go in the dressing room and he took off his suit, I expected to see this cape and this S on his chest. There was this presence he had. Walking into a room, stepping on the ice … it was Gordie Howe. He never disappointed. And for how tough and how mean you heard he was on the ice, and how great he was as a player, he was always a kid at heart.

“He just reeked hockey. He was what hockey should be about.”

Howe stories, of course, litter our landscape. Brighten up the dull, formulaic, cookie-cutter blandness of today’s well-scrubbed, personality-starved, sanitized NHL. Everyone from Howe’s era – or more correctly, eras – has a favorite yarn or two to share. Rogers is no different. Lucky fellow, he had a front-row seat for a wonderful, never-to-be-replicated show.

“We’re playing against the Winnipeg Jets one night, against (Anders) Hedberg, (Bobby) Hull and (Ulf) Nilsson.  In Hartford. They’re beating us like 6-2. I’m sitting beside Gordie on the bench and he says, ‘Know what, Mike, I’ve had enough.’ And I’m like ‘I have, too, Gordie, but what are we going to do about it?’

“He goes out on the ice, next shift, and Hedberg and Nilsson, all of a sudden, are both headed to the dressing room to get stitched. And Bobby’s bleeding. Gordie finally gets a penalty for slicing Bobby. Then gets two more for complaining to the official about why he was getting a penalty. So, unsportsmanlike.

“He gets back to the bench, I’m sitting beside him again and I say ‘Gordie, that was unbelievable. THREE of them.’ And he says ‘Yeah. Coulda been worse.’ I  say: ‘Whaddaya mean?’ And he says: ‘Well, I like Bobby so I only cut him a little bit.’

“A LITTLE bit?!

“But that’s how precise he was with his stick. He was mad at the way the game was going and he was going to do something about it. Just blew me away.

“He had this aura about him. And, really, the last thing you’re going to do is fight a 50-year-old man. But I think if you’d asked, 99 per cent of the guys would’ve said they didn’t want to fight Gordie Howe. Precisely because they didn’t want to get beat up by a 50-year-old man.”

More even than the player who defied time, Rogers remembers the man. The practical joker who in his mid-70s would still stick out a playful leg to trip his long-ago teammate at a Whalers’ reunion function. The idol-turned-friend who offered to drive him to Manhattan the day Hartford unloaded him to Gotham back in 1981, the first person to make sure he was okay.

Rogers has the rare distinction of being a teammate of both Howe and Wayne Gretzky (briefly in the WHA ). Also with Hull for a short stint in Hartford. Three of arguably the top five or six to ever play the game.

And so, the inevitable question, when pressed for a choice, who is it?

“Gordie Howe,” is the unhesitating reply. “Maybe because I played longer with Gordie and I just idolized him as a kid … there was just something that sets him apart. I was amazed by Wayne, the things he did on the ice. He had everything. Those numbers he put up … I never got to know him really off the ice but I know he’s a wonderful person.

“But what Gordie was able to do with longevity, I think he encompassed the game. Skill. Strength. Toughness. Longevity.  You’d look at Gordie Howe and say this is the model of what a player should be.

“Whether you call it the total package … however you want to describe it. I can’t image what Gordie was like in his 20s and 30s. He was amazing in his 50s. To be able to play over that many decades and at such a high level, that, to me, makes him the best.”

He may not be able to bear the papers or the TV or the talk, but Rogers continues to receive updates from the family, from Mark Howe, on Gordie’s condition. The news from Lubbock, Tx., on Thursday – a slight improvement. Mr. Hockey got to sit in a living-room chair two days in a row. We are dealing with small consolations here.

The thoughts and prayers of everyone in or in love with the game, the entirety of the sports spectrum, in fact, went out to No. 9 and his family when news of his additional challenges broke. Since then, they’ve never stopped.

“It’s tough,” Rogers says softly. “When you hear about what’s happened, that’s not my picture of Gordie Howe. I guess that’s why, when people talk about how poorly he’s doing, I just can’t go there. I just see this massive man who cared so much, loved the game so much, was so competitive.

“I had a scrapbook of him as a kid. So to be able to call him my friend …

“The guy just enjoyed life. So much. And to see that being taken away from him … it’s just killing me.”

That’s the way it is, always, with heroes.

gjohnson@calgaryherald.com

Follow George Johnson on Twitter at GeorgejohnsonCH

 

 
 
 
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Province sports columnist Tony Gallagher takes a look back at "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe in this video with Jonathan McDonald.
 

Province sports columnist Tony Gallagher takes a look back at "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe in this video with Jonathan McDonald.

Photograph by: File, Getty images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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