By Allan Muir
If you know me, you’ve heard this story before. But today, being the 85th birthday of the great Gordie Howe, it feels like a good time to re-tell it.
The first thing you need to know is that Bobby Orr was my hero as a kid, which didn’t make me different from a lot of kids growing up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. My room was a shrine to No. 4, littered with posters, lunchboxes and hockey cards. I worshipped the guy.
Naturally, I assumed I’d grow up to be just like him. My dad, a Habs fan who failed to convert me to Jean Beliveau, says I cried after my first time on the ice because I couldn’t skate like Orr. It took me a couple years to realize why that was an unrealistic expectation. Of course I couldn’t skate like him. Or shoot. Or pass. Or defend. Nobody could. Orr was the greatest player who had ever lived.
I assumed every hockey fan recognized that. But in Windsor, Ontario, just a few miles away from the Olympia, that was not a widely held opinion.
Where I was from, Gordie Howe was the man. And my grandfather, Fred Preston, was only too happy to remind me of that every chance he got.
Fred was a dyed-in-the-wool Detroit Red Wings fan. He made the occasional trek across the river to catch them in person, but he never missed a game on the radio.
He had his shrine, too. The first thing you’d see when you walked through the back door of his small, war-time house was a framed, colorized photo of Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, Detroit’s famed Production Line, breaching enemy territory in tight formation. You know the one. I tried to cover it up a few times with Orr photos I’d cut out of Hockey Illustrated. My attempts at home improvement were not well received.
Every visit to that house, every trip to watch our hometown Spitfires, every family outing inevitably involved a spirited, albeit good-natured, debate over which of our heroes truly was the greatest.
He’d try to win me over with tales of about Howe’s unmatchable scoring exploits, his legendary mean streak, his longevity, his four Stanley Cups, his six Hart and six Art Ross trophies.
“There’s a reason they call him Mr. Hockey,” he’d say. “Nobody does it all the way Gordie can.”
I’m not sure my arguments were as cogently presented or as factually sturdy — I mean, I was like, eight years old – but I matched him in passion.
These arguments became our bond. Even as Orr won his Cups and Howe faded (temporarily) into retirement, one could never sway the other. And on and on it went, until Fred passed away in 1989.
A couple years later, my job offered me an opportunity to interview Howe. Nervous? You bet. Nerves never entered the equation when talking to modern stars, but get me around a true legend of the game like Beliveau or Maurice Richard in those days and it was hard not to be a little awe-struck.
But the thing about Gordie is that he has this ability to put you immediately at ease. He’s as interested in hearing about you as he is in sharing his own stories, and so we continued chatting long after I had everything I needed for my piece. Eventually, we got around to where I grew up, and that led to me telling him the story of Fred Preston and his never-ending quest to convince me that Howe, not Orr, was hockey’s ultimate hero.
When I finished, he gave me that Gordie grin and said, “Your grandfather sounds like a pretty smart guy to me.”
I’ve seen a lot of amazing players since then. Gretzky. Lemieux. Crosby. I’ll still argue that Orr is the greatest player that’s ever lived.
But I won’t forget that some pretty smart guys, including one very important man in my life, swore by No. 9.