Pat Quinn has done practically everything you can image in hockey, but bring up him hitting the ice for the first time with Gordie Howe and his voice still perks up a little bit.
It was at the Detroit Red Wings’ 1961-62 training camp. Quinn was an 18-year-old defenceman with the Hamilton Tiger Cubs. The junior club was run by the same people who ran the Red Wings, and Detroit needed some extra bodies to get ready for the season. Quinn was sent to fill one of those spots.
There were normally three practice slots per day, and the established veterans, looking to get things out of the way, were granted the first one. Quinn, inexplicably, ended up in that group one day.
He was “so excited to play with the guys that he had been watching on TV.” When the session ended, Quinn was getting ready to leave the ice when Howe skated over and asked him what he was doing.
“Practice is over, Mr. Howe,” he said.
“No it’s not ... get over here,” he was told.
They worked on shooting intricacies for some time.
“I never felt comfortable enough to call him anything but ‘Mr. Howe,’ then,” said Quinn, 70, who will be one of the dignitaries on hand when the Vancouver Giants celebrate Howe’s upcoming 85th birthday on Friday, in conjunction with a visit from the Lethbridge Hurricanes to the Pacific Coliseum.
“This was the six-team NHL. I didn’t know if it was possible to ever play there or not, but I was definitely going to take advantage of this moment.
“Later on, when I was walking back to the hotel, I was thinking, ‘How did that happen? How did I get invited to stay on the ice with Gordie Howe?’”
The next day, Quinn was skating with the younger group. He was there for the remainder of his stay at camp.
“In the end, I had my little treat and then I went back to where I belonged,” said Quinn.
He did take things from that session, mind you. Quinn marvelled at how Howe used a shorter than normal stick, and Howe showed him that he could put the puck closer in his feet and protect it that way from opponents.
“Before too long, I had a higher lie and a shorter stick,” Quinn said. “That influence definitely had something to do with it.
Quinn says he got to learn about Howe’s personality from players he knew who went on to play with Howe in Houston and Hartford. They’ve also spent time via their connection as co-owners of the Giants.
“During the game, Gordie was the sort of guy who took no bull from anybody,” said Quinn. “Tougher guys stayed clear of him.
“Off the ice, you got to realize what a gentleman he is. He’s so polite, so nice.
“Later in life, I’ve gotten to learn more about him. I’ve learned a lot through his other friends.
“Everyone who knows him well speaks so highly of him. I watch him with people and nobody I’ve ever seen handles them quite as well as he does.”
© Copyright (c) The Province