It’s an old line that has been repeated often in pro hockey circles, and I have no idea who said it first. But it went something like this:
“For many years in the old six-team NHL, there usually were four good teams: Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Gordie Howe.”
That’s not to discount or denigrate Howe’s teammates with the Detroit Red Wings. He had some great ones, especially in the early to mid-1950s, when the Wings won four Stanley Cups in six years.
Rather, the comment was meant as a great compliment to Howe, who carried the Wings through the rest of the ’50s and throughout the ’60s before he decided to retire in 1971.
What happened in the aftermath of that first retirement forms the narrative of Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, a made-for-TV movie that premieres Sunday, April 28 on CBC.
Playing Howe is Michael Shanks (pictured at top and bottom), a veteran Canadian actor best known in recent years for his role as Dr. Charlie Harris in the series Saving Hope. Mr. Hockey also stars Kathleen Robertson as Gordie’s wife Colleen, and Dylan Playfair and Andy Herr as Gordie’s hockey-playing sons Marty and Mark.
Howe was 43 years old when he retired from the Wings, but he quickly grew bored with his glad-handing job in the Detroit organization.
An upstart league called the WHA offered Howe the unique opportunity to play pro hockey with his sons, who were ineligible for the NHL because they were too young. Also, the WHA gave Howe a chance to offset the astonishing underpayment he had experienced with the miserly Wings, particularly for a player of his stature.
So Mr. Hockey follows the Howe family from Michigan to the Lone Star State, where Gordie, Marty and Mark lace up their skates for the WHA’s Houston Aeros.
Shanks plays Gordie as a man who understandably is protective of his boys in the goon-ridden WHA, but he has to learn to let them fight their own battles. Conversely, Marty and Mark are just as worried about their old man, fearing he’s going to keel over and have a heart attack.
Many dismissed the whole thing as a publicity stunt, but Howe had the last laugh. Not only did he string together six productive seasons in the WHA, he then amazingly played a full final season back in the NHL when the two leagues merged in 1979-80.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Hockey is similar in feel and tone to a couple of other CBC hockey-related biopics in recent years, namely Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story (2010) and The Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story (2012).
Certainly if you wanted to touch upon the entirety of Howe’s hockey career, he would need at least two biopics as well. But the comeback is what people tend to remember most about Howe, which does a disservice to the true legend of what a dominating player he was in his prime.
Hockey fans love to debate who the game’s greatest players were. But exact order notwithstanding, everyone’s list includes the likes of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe.