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The Rosary and Gordie Howe

It is difficult to explain just how seriously hockey was taken in my family. Certainly that had not changed at all by the time I was born in 1953, as the youngest of 5 children.

For my Dad, family, his religious faith, heritage and supporting certain sports teams were absolute priorities, presumably in that order.

In the early 1960’s, I’ve often said and written, the order of those priorities seemed to shift frequently, with hockey taking on a disproportionate sense of importance.

Interestingly, many of those priorities meshed together when it came to his passionate support for the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs, for Dad, represented his French-Canadian and religious roots, and he defended those things vigorously throughout his life.

Like many francophones in those days, his favorite player in the 40’s and 50’s was Maurice Richard. Dad thought very highly of Richard, and the Rocket’s fiery temperament in many ways matched that of my father. Dad was fiercely proud of the Rocket’s accomplishments, and when Richard retired just before the 1960-’61 NHL season (I was just turning 7) Richard held the all-time record for most regular season goals (544) and playoff goals (82).

Toward the latter stages of his career, Richard was still able to score goals, but he was not staying in shape in the off-season, and was fighting injuries. When the Rocket retired, Gordie Howe was on a collision course with Richard’s regular season goal-scoring record. The constant march by Howe toward the record was particularly painful for my Dad, in part because of where we lived.

Dad’s home had always been in a very small, French-Canadian village in southwestern Ontario. The closest “city” was Windsor, right across from Detroit, home to the hated (by my Dad, at least) Red Wings and Richard’s long-time rival, Howe.

Again, because of our proximity, every Detroit home game was easily available on the radio, broadcast from Detroit radio station WWJ. Detroit’s primary broadcasters in those days were Budd Lynch and Bruce Martin. Martin was, in my mind, a particularly outstanding play-by-play man with a knack for capturing the key moments in a game in the right octave. He was talented and very professional, though obviously supportive of the Red Wings, as are all hometown broadcasters are.

Lynch, for his part, broadcast beyond the normal and expected range of “homerism”, which offended my Dad all the more. Familiarity bred contempt. Lynch loved Howe and his broadcasts revealed as much. My Dad hated Howe (in hockey terms, at least), so it was a bad cocktail when Dad listened, which was often.

Back in those days, the early 60’s, my Aunt Olive (one of my mother’s older sisters) and her husband, Clarence, lived in the south end of Windsor. My mom came from a big gamily and there was a lot of visiting between all of us, as we all lived within a reasonable driving distance from one another.

When we visited my Aunt Olive and her family, we would often listen to the Red Wing games on the way home. It was about a 20-25 minute drive and we generally were able to catch some of the third period by that time, which was usually around 9 o’clock or so. Montreal played in Detroit 7 times a season in those days, usually on a Sunday night, the evening we would often visit Aunt Olive.

My Dad was one of the forerunners of multi-tasking, so we used to listen to the Wings (and the Detroit Tigers in the summer on WJR) on the way home, while simultaneously saying the rosary. (We said the rosary every night as a family, usually praying on our knees. The only exception was when we were driving.)

It was always my mom, dad and my sister and I in the car. I knew how seriously Dad took these things (hey, I didn’t like Montreal, but I didn’t much like the Wings, either), so it was often a tense drive home, as he would quietly but fervently cheer against the Wings, and especially Howe. Every Howe goal, with Lynch or Martin gleefully telling the story, was like a dagger.

My memories are vivid of many of those evenings, especially when we would listen to hockey games and pray out loud at the same time, reciting the nightly rosary. (The rosary, for those of no or different religious tradition, takes about 15 minutes or so to complete- faster if we were doing it between periods some nights.) Even though Dad would turn down the volume a fair bit on the car radio while we were praying, I knew whenever Howe would score a goal. This is because, in the midst of our earnest prayerfulness, Dad would suddenly – and angrily - punch the button on the old car radio dial. That was the sign that Howe had scored.

There would be momentary silence in the car (my mother and sister could not have cared less about hockey, but were very attuned to my father’s temperament), then a return to a rather monotone rendering of the ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’, over and over.

I never discussed this peculiarity with my Dad. The quick strike at the radio dial happened many times, especially in those years as Howe ultimately pursued, caught, and then surpassed the Rocket. It didn’t help that many of Gordie’s big goals (544 to tie the record -check out the photo at the top of the story showing Howe scoring #544- as well as 545 against Charlie Hodge to beat the record, and eventually, number 600, against Worsley) were all scored against Montreal. Dad’s reaction to those moments was never good (and probably not at all healthy) but again, we avoided the subject.

If nothing else (and he was, in fact many good things, and a man with some strong values), Dad should have been considered a minor prophet. He used to complain that Howe scored almost all of his goals by just standing in front of the net, while others did the work to get him the puck.

He often claimed that Gordie would be able to score 20 goals a season sitting in a rocking chair when he was 50. Well, after initially retiring in his early 40’s, Howe indeed made a comeback to play with his sons Mark and Marty and then played until he was in his 50’s, scoring goals all along the way.

In many ways, the more I talked with my Dad over the years, I saw that he actually acknowledged and recognized Howe as a wonderfully talented player, a great player who could make and take a pass like few others, a player with wonderful on-ice vision. He even met Howe briefly at a train station one night, while Howe was travelling with the Red Wings, just sitting down, doing a jigsaw puzzle. They chatted briefly and very pleasantly, according to my Dad (Howe was always, by all accounts, a tremendously cordial individual, including with fans. He was exactly the same when I met him a few years ago, as I was preparing to write a story about Howe).

It’s just that my Dad was so loyal to Richard and everything he felt that Richard stood for, that he loathed the idea of Richard losing his record to a player from the hated rival Red Wings.

But even nightly prayer couldn’t stop the great Red Wing winger from eclipsing the Rocket’s record.

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