When I was 19 years old, the World Hockey Association was doing its best to entice me away from becoming a top NHL pick. How did they do it? I was flown into Hartford to watch a game (in 1978 the Whalers were still playing in the WHA), and at the team's pre-game meal they sat me at a table with Pie McKenzie, Dave Keon and Mr. Hockey... Gordie Howe.
Amazing players, amazing people, amazing insights!
While other Hartford Whalers were eating their steaks, onion rings, and pasta, I noticed that Gordie Howe chose to be different. Gordie’s plate looked different. He ate a small piece of chicken, cottage cheese, and lots of raw veggies. Mr. Hockey was older than the rest so apparently, he decided to do things differently.
I didn’t join the Whalers that spring, but I did play against Gordie the next season. I chose to be drafted by the NHL, playing for the Washington Capitals, and Gordie continued playing for the Hartford Whalers, who were amalgamated into the NHL that season. I was 20 years old playing against my hockey hero and that season, Gordie was 52 years old! Crazy, right?
One night in Hartford, our young Capital’s centreman, Bengt Gustafsson ran Hartford’s Marty Howe into the boards. Gordie played in Hartford with both his sons, Mark and Marty. Evidently Gordie didn't like Bengt running his son because the next shift Gordie chased Bengt all over the ice trying to drop the gloves with him. Can you imagine, at 52 years old not only playing in the NHL, but enforcing his will on the game?
This week I turned 65 years old. That too is crazy!
Our kids called to wish me a happy birthday and I said to all of them, “How did 65 sneak up so quickly?” Yes, my body has taken a few hits (old knees, replaced hip, multiple pins in the right wrist…) and has a few miles under the hood, but otherwise I feel 29! Jenn and I are coming off our best Leadership Development Training season ever. We are busier now than when I was in my 40s & 50s and earning more money than I did as an NHL player.
I am so thankful, with lots more growth to go, and lots more to learn.
Back to Gordie Howe. Turning 65 found me reflecting on some of the lessons that I learned from playing against Gordie when he was 52. What principles could I apply that would help me continue to compete well into my 70s? After all, Jenn and I are not slowing down; we want to be fully used up by our Creator.
I came up with 3 insights that I want to implement in my process of aging well. See if you can apply some of the principles that I watched Gordie apply, independent of your age.
The Passion Principle
That’s always the first one, right? Gordie loved the game. He loved playing with his sons inside the game. Gordie was a player; he played with passion.
If you and I love the game we are playing, then age is never the key factor, passion is. Our passion for our game is the age equalizer. Age certainly impacts our bodies but basically, the older we get, the more we realize that age is just a mind game. Gordie’s game (his talent) was not the same as it was when he was in his 20s, but Gordie competed. Mr. Hockey found multiple ways to add value to his team. His passion was contagious.
The Process Principle
Gordie adjusted his processes to impact his lagging outcomes. For Gordie to continue to compete in the NHL at 52 years old, he had to adjust. Cottage cheese replaced onion rings, chicken replaced steak, and raw veggies replaced pasta. With his passion to play on the same team as his sons firmly in place, adjustments wrapped in purpose became necessary.
Mr. Hockey recognized that as his ice time was adjusted, his role adjusted, and so his expectations needed also to be adjusted. During my 15 NHL seasons I also played on the first line (on the power play), then the second line (now the penalty kill), next the third line, and then the fourth line, sitting 55 minutes on the bench.
Each move could have felt like a demotion making me increasingly bitter, but like Gordie, I maintained a passion for the game and saw each movement as an opportunity to adjust my process in order to find ways to add value to my team.
The Protection Principle
Watching Gordie come off the bench to chase Bengt Gustafsson around the ice was mind-blowing. Here was a 52-year-old chasing a 21-year-old, protecting his players, and protecting his son. You and I do not have to chase people around the ice, trying to drop our gloves, but we can play the important role of having our families’ backs, and having our employees’ backs. Sadly, many teams today perform within an individual player “it’s all about me” environment.
A high percentage of players still play for each other and their team, but many of today's players need to be taught how to be team players. People change best within an atmosphere of protection. I recall coaching in an environment of little support, where it felt that I had no one who would champion my cause. Being a champion of people gives them enough protection to grow and change.
Gordie taught me this protection principle. People, workers, and family always perform better and enjoy life more when they know we have their backs. Players enjoy the process, with more passion, when they know that other people are for them, on their side, not always against them.
Age often brings the perspective and the wisdom to know when to protect, when to support, and when to allow players to bruise their knuckles. During our later years we can be the person who younger players rely on. We can be the person bringing the much-needed emotional protection.
Three simple principles to help us play-hard as we advance towards heaven.
I have fond memories of that pregame meal I shared with Gordie Howe in 1978. I remember his smile, his professionalism, and the way he made me feel comfortable, his joking around. They say that people only remember how you make them feel, but after 45 years of reflection, it feels like Mr. Hockey is still teaching me how to play this “game of life!”
Old dogs can learn new tricks… especially from older dogs!
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