February 28th, 2013. A routine flight turned into something special.

I stumbled back onto an American Airlines flight in Dallas, heading for Vancouver after an overnight connecting flight from Rio de Janeiro. I’ve taken this flight many times over the course of writing my book but this one would turn out to be completely different.

As I entered the plane I looked to my right and there he was. Seat 1A, Gordie Howe. For a kid from Tisdale, Saskatchewan, the sight of Gordie Howe was surreal. I retained my dignity and didn’t say anything, but I was really blown away that I was sharing a flight with my idol, Mr. Hockey. Unfortunately, we were not in the same section- he was in business and I was in the last row of economy, about as far away from seat 1A as you could without being on a different flight. However, I reminded myself that I was in a coveted aisle seat that I prefer for longer flights. Today, that aisle seat would prove to be much more importance than just for comfort.

As I settled into the flight, my mind was flooded by all kinds of memories of hockey-street hockey in front of our house, seeing who could be the first to skate in the fall on the Doghide River, which was really more of a slow-moving creek, (somebody would always go through the ice and have to quickly rush home before their clothes were completely frozen) and of course the all-day pick-up games that would take place on the vacant lot across the street from the Butt residence at the south end of town. (Brent wasn’t born yet!)

I was content to let my Gordie Howe sighting be just that when I saw the flight attendant from business class coming by me on her way to the rear galley. As she was going by I managed to make enough eye contact to grab her attention – “Do you know who the person is in seat 1A?” Being from Dallas, she didn’t have a clue. “I can’t say that I do”, she replied, “but he’s very polite and seems quite modest considering all the fuss everyone in first class is making over him.”

I motioned to her to come a little closer and lowered my voice as I explained that his name was Gordie Howe, one of the most famous and recognizable persons in Canada. I went on to explain that he was to hockey what Babe Ruth was to baseball or Michael Jordon was to basketball. She didn’t seem to be in much of a rush so we chatted further about Mr. Howe. I told her that we both grew up in Saskatchewan and that he had been my idol growing up. We talked for a few more minutes and then she suggested, “you know, he’s such a nice man, why don’t I tell him that a lifelong fan would like to meet him and see what he says?” I thanked her profusely and mumbled something like, “tell him I’m from Saskatoon, maybe that will help my cause.”

She went about her business and returned in about 20 minutes with the verdict, “He said that he would have preferred to talk to a pretty girl but if you are from Saskatoon he’ll talk to you.” With that she went on, “come with me, I’ll take you to him.” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard but she continued, “yes, he’s waiting for you to come by for a chat”. With that I was ushered to the front of the plane to meet Gordie Howe.

Talk about surreal. I didn’t have time to think, let alone get nervous. When I arrived at the front the man next to him jumped up and said, “here, take my seat, I’ll stand for a while.” I later found out that he was Bob Purnell, Gordie’s son-in-law and travel companion for the trip.

I extended my hand to Gordie and introduced myself. The first thing I noticed about this hockey legend was how big and strong his hands were. Even though he was 85 years old, his right hand basically engulfed mine and his powerful handshake pulled me into the seat next to him. He repeated the story the flight attendant told me about the pretty girl and Saskatoon and we had a good laugh.

doug-hodgins-gordie-howe

I asked Gordie why he was going to Vancouver and he explained that The Vancouver Giants junior hockey team were throwing an 85th birthday party for him and he was told to show up, so here he was. (Gordie is a part-owner of the team along with Ron Toigo, Pat Quinn and Micheal Buble-not a bad ownership group!)

For the next 20 minutes I was treated to story after story of my idol’s life. He talked a lot about growing up in Saskatoon-about playing hockey on the outdoor rink close to his home, about everyone having to pull together to get by as there wasn’t much money in Depression-era Saskatchewan, about using the old Eaton’s catalogues for shin pads, about playing baseball there in the summers and about having to work in construction to earn extra money the first couple of years he played in the NHL. He talked about how he had never seen eyes like Rocket Richard’s, about what a nasty little S.O.B. Ted Lindsay was to play against and the elegance of Jean Beliveau.

I tried to leave several times as I was concerned that his son-in-law wanted to get his seat back but Bob assured me that he was fine, happy that Gordie was doing what he loved to do, which was to meet people and talk about old times. Every time I attempted to shake hands and go back to my seat Gordie would simply pull me back down and launch into another story. Talk about making my day!

Eventually I settled back into my seat at the rear of the plane and tried to make some sense out of what I had just experienced. My thoughts turned to Lou Holtz, the legendary Notre Dame football coach, who has three simple rules he follows in life:

1. Do your best.
2. Do the right thing.
3. Show people you care.

Somebody else also shares this philosophy. Thank you Mr. Hockey for sharing your time with me but perhaps more importantly, for showing me that being the best didn’t stop you from doing what’s right and showing someone that you really cared.

And that, my friends, may be the best Gordie Howe hat trick of all.

Best wishes,

Doug

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