Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 5, 2013

HOPKINS: A movie's debut stirs hockey memories

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Before I began my journalism career, I tried to make it in the ultra-competitive world of sports broadcasting. I have a lot of friends from that period of my life — people who were far more successful than I with a microphone in front of their faces.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have my moments. In fact, the subject of what was perhaps my greatest broadcasting coup was the topic of a made-for-TV movie that made its U.S. debut last night on the Hallmark Channel.

When I started out in radio — which I preferred over television — I had dreams of becoming a radio play-by-play broadcaster for hockey or perhaps baseball. I had fleeting glimpses of the big times. I called professional roller hockey and indoor soccer for Buffalo teams in the 1990s. Hey, it may have only been roller hockey, but I can honestly say that I broadcast a hockey game from the Montreal Forum.

As thrilling as that night was, it was during that same summer of 1995 that I had the honor of interviewing the man affectionally known as “Mister Hockey.”

It was a hot afternoon on a July day in 1995 and I was in Detroit’s Cobo Arena setting up the radio equipment to call a Roller Hockey International game between the defending champion Buffalo Stampede and the Detroit Motor City Mustangs. The team’s road manager and my color commentator strolled into the booth and casually asked a question that didn’t even need a response.

“John, do you want to interview Gordie Howe?”

I grabbed my tape recorder and flew out the door faster than the Road Runner kicks it into high gear when being chased by Wile E. Coyote.

I reached the locker room hallway and looked around. No Gordie. There was a youth roller hockey game — or maybe it was a tournament — taking place on the floor. So, I walked toward the Zamboni entrance. As I turned the corner there he stood, larger than life.

Despite owning only a few brief memories of him playing, I knew plenty about Gordie Howe. He made his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946 at age 18. He retired from the NHL in 1971, a few months after I was born. Yet, he came out of retirement two years later to play with his sons Mark and Marty for the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, a competing league to the well-established NHL. A great part of the TV movie focuses on that season.

My only memories of Howe are form the 1979-80 season when he returned to the NHL with his sons as members of the Hartford Whalers, one of four surviving teams absorbed by the NHL from the WHA, which folded.

Even at the age of 52, Howe showed he could still play, scoring 15 goals in 80 games. He received a 10-minute standing ovation when he was introduced to the crowd before the All-Star Game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena that season. Watching on TV, I still remember that cheer, and his sheepish, yet gratified, expression.

That was in 1980. Fifteen yearrs later, I walked up to the man who is only one of three to score 1,000 major league goals, introduced myself and asked if he had a few minutes for an interivew.

“Sure,” he said, “I’d be happy to.” Then he looked at the rink, where noise from the game and the crowd was growing as play shifted into our end of the building. “Let’s go down this hallway where it’ll be a little more quiet,” he suggested. Fine by me.

I planned to use the interview for halftime, I told him, and I’d like to talk a little about his career and roller hockey. Then I introduced him as “the only man to score 1,000 professional goals.”

He thanked me for the kind introduction then corrected me that Bobby Hull — the father of the hated (in Buffalo) Brett — had also scored 1,000. “And I have a feeling we’ll be joined fairly soon by Wayne Gretzky.”

By The Great One’s mention, I had already squeezed my eyes and shook my head, upset with myself because I knew that Bobby Hull had reached 1,000 with the WHA’s WInnipeg Jets. Fortunately, I recovered for a smooth interview.

What was it like to receive that 10-minute ovation? What do you think of roller hockey? Does it have a future at the pro level? The best part of this interview was when he talked about how much he enjoyed watching his grandson play.

When we concluded the interview, I turned off the tape recorder and thanked him profusely. Tehn he smiled, looked at me like we were old friends.

“He’s a funny little guy, my grandson. He’ll put his skates on and challenge me to a race. ... “ We went on talking for about five minutes and if it weren’t for that pesky game I had to call, I might have stayed there and talked with him all night.

Not only is he Mister Hockey, but Gordie Howe is a gentleman and a fine example of how we should treat strangers: with kindness and respect.