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Ali and Howe Transcended Athletic Greatness
People die every day, but when they are sporting legends somehow it means just a little more. It emphasizes to anyone who watched these great athletes that what they did mattered.
Earlier this week, Muhammad Ali – the self-acclaimed Greatest Fighter Of All Time – passed away at age 74. Far too soon, far too early. And on Friday, Gordie Howe – arguably the greatest hockey player of all time – passed away at age 88.
His passing was announced only a few hours after the sporting world and millions around the world would view the worldwide telecast of Ali’s funeral. Parkinson’s disease effectively silenced the voice that Ali used to captivate audiences. He became a muted version of himself, but through the media and the ability to capture sound and images, his voice will rumble and roar for eternity.
Ali mattered because he had the dual quality of taking his God-given athletic talent and transcending it beyond just the arenas in which he showcased his talents.
The same can be said of Howe. He lived longer than Ali, although he battled illnesses in recent years that had already come close to ending his life. Medical science, specifically stem cell treatments in 2015, allowed him to defy death. As soon as it was announced that Howe’s condition had improved, anyone who followed his life and career breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Even though Howe had a long life, hockey fans didn’t want to see Mr. Hockey die, if only to figuratively hold on to him a little bit longer. In 1963, Bob Davies, a Montrealer who headed the group Big Bob and The Dollars, paid tribute to Howe in a song: The opening stanza was simple and to the point: “Gordie Howe is the greatest of them all; the greatest of them all; yes, the greatest of them all; you can have your choice of all the rest; if you’re a Howe fan, you’ve got the very best.”
There is more to the song which told the story of the native of Floral, Saskatchewan who carved a niche – some would say literally – in what would be a brilliant 25-year career with the Detroit Red Wings. He could play defence or any of the forward positions, but it was on the right wing that Howe made a name for himself, instilling fear with his elbows in any opposing player who dared cover him with just a little too much zeal. Howe scored more goals, assists and total points until a young kid from Brantford who idolized him erased his records. But Wayne Gretzky did so with the utmost of respect for his hero.
Hockey, similar to boxing, had a place in sports that mattered far more than now. Back then, a superstar such as Howe and Ali drew crowds of admirers because they were real people and you didn’t have total access to them. You could only see them so often, and each time it provided snapshots of their mystique and aura. It is well known that Howe never made what he was worth because the system at the time gave owners the balance of power, and any player who dared defy them was either banished to the minors or to Chicago, the equivalent at the time of Siberia, because the team rarely had a competitive lineup.
A Players’ Association eventually changed things in hockey, but far too late for Howe. He was blatantly ripped off, a slave labourer in a punitive system. It was one of Howe’s linemates, Terrible Ted Lindsay, who led the vanguard to create a players’ association. But before all that came into play, Howe had only his wife, Colleen, who fought for his rights. They made a wonderful team: Mr. and Mrs. Hockey.
Inasmuch as Ali was a trailblazer for refusing to fight for the U.S. in the Viet Nam War, Howe became famous for his decision to end his two-year retirement to play with his two sons, Mark and Marty, in the World Hockey Association. It was a renegade league that challenged the power of the National Hockey League by offering players more money. You had to admire Howe for what he did. It wasn’t about the money – although he was deserving of it – but more so that rare opportunity to join his sons on a team when his career had effectively ended in the NHL. Whether or not he felt he had something left to contribute, the Wings’ decided his time had come to an end.
The Wings gave Howe a front-office job as essentially a goodwill ambassador, but in his heart he yearned to still play. Trading in his uniform for a suit ate away at his competitive zeal, and when he decided to play again the Wings made it a personal issue and removed the images of him that hung in glory in the Detroit arena he made famous. That was the small-minded thinking of Red Wings’ owner Bruce Norris in those days.
To Howe, the risk was worth it. And could you really blame him?
Similar to Ali, he did something he believed was right regardless of the consequences. That’s what made these two individuals so great: they had an aura that transcended sports, but which made them sporting legends.
Weep not for the memories of Ali and Howe; cherish the fact they both did something that cemented their legacies as more than just athletes and provided us with the true understanding of athletic greatness.