Updated: Jan 12, 2022
When I was 19 years old the World Hockey Association was doing its best to entice me away from being 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 WHL), and at the team's pre-game meal they sat me at a table with Pie McKenzie, Dave Keon and Mr. Hockey... Gordie Howe. My Mom's favourite was Dave Keon, and my Dad's favourite player was Gordie Howe. Amazing!
I played against Gordie the next season. I chose to be drafted by the NHL and was playing for the Washington Capitals, and Gordie continued playing for the Hartford Whalers, as they were amalgamated into the NHL that season. I was 20 years old playing against Gordie Howe and that season he was 52! Again... Amazing!
Recently, my friend Dale Saip, the Senior VP of the Vancouver Giants, invited me to be part of the the opening ceremony of a game celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Western Hockey League. During my short time in the Green Room (where people wait before the game), my sister, Donna, and I enjoyed seeing a number of Gordie Howe's jerseys on the wall. Glancing at these Howe jerseys reminded me of my interactions with Mr. Hockey and how much he shaped the way that I did professional hockey.
I met on Michael Richter on the ferry from Nanaimo to Tsawwassen. Michael caught my attention because he was wearing a Hartford Whalers hat, and I was smack in the middle of writing this blog post on the three secrets I learned from Gordie Howe.
The first secret that I learned from Gordie was the way he focused attention. For Gordie to play at an age when most people in most professions are starting to think about retiring (my Dad retired from BC Telephone at 55 years old), Gordie had to focus away from the number on his birth certificate and onto the process that allowed him to play the game he loved.
During my first encounter with Mr. Hockey at the Whalers pre-game meal, while other Hartford players were eating their steaks, bread and pasta, Gordie consumed a small piece of chicken, cottage cheese and lots of veggies. Gordie taught me then and there to focus on what I want and away from what "the rest" want. To achieve higher goals, what we want must inform what we do. Gordie's deep desire to play in the NHL with his boys Mark and Marty, drove the changes that he had to make... like cottage cheese over steak. J. I. Packer wrote, “Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.”
According to leadership expert Jim Collins, level 5 leaders develop 2 key qualities: Humility and Will. That so describes Gordie Howe. Gordie's first secret is a powerful personal reminder in a world that so worries about conforming. Psychiatrist Rollo May wrote in Man's Search for Himself, "The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice ... it is conformity."
Mr. Hockey taught me that it takes courage to focus on what I want over what other people want for me.
The second secret I learned from Gordie was to focus away from language that held him back (I am way too old) and towards language that supported his dream. If any of you readers ever had the pleasure of talking with Gordie, you will immediately recognize the way Gordie actioned this second secret. Gordie didn't allow himself to focus on retiring or his age because he was too busy focusing on others! Gordie (the most important person in the room and in the game of hockey), would immediately adjust the conversation off of him and on to you. The most important person in hockey would make you the most important person in the room.
Mr. Hockey accomplished this by using the skill of deflection, which for him was more than just an on-ice skill to score goals. Gordie deflected in conversations by asking questions. Every person who has ever met Gordie Howe walked away feeling honoured, comfortable and connected with him. He made people feel comfortable because he had mastered the skill of putting the focus on the other person through the power of questions. Gordie didn't become the NHL's all-time goal scorer (even though a few players have since passed him) by just back-checking or playing defence. Gordie went on offense in conversations by focusing his attention on you before you could focus all of your hero-attention on him. What a great hockey tactic; what an amazing people skill.
The second secret that Mr. Hockey taught me was to focus my language by intentionally deflecting.
The final secret that Gordie taught me came through watching him play on Hockey Night in Canada, and later by playing against him. Gordie was playing on the same team with his two sons Marty and Mark, for the Whalers, during the 1978-79 NHL Season. One night in Hartford, Bengt Gustafsson from our Washington Capitals team ran Hartford’s Marty Howe into the boards from behind. I guess Gordie didn't like the check because the next shift Gordie jumped on the ice and chased Bengt trying to get him to fight. At 52 years old... crazy, right?
During his last season in the NHL, Gordie's skating and skills were not what they had been a couple of decades earlier, but his intention was definitely intentional. I did not see every one of the 1,767 NHL games that Gordie played, but I can guess that every time he was on the ice, he played hard. The words "a soft player"have never been uttered in the same sentence with Mr.Hockey. Gordie played hard and then was kind to you off the ice.
During my last season in the NHL, I was paired off with tough-guy friend Stu Grimson as two of our teammates squared off to scrap. I was comfortable hanging on to Stu when all of a sudden he sucker-punched me. I looked at him and said "What the....?" With a big smile, Stu said. "I'll apologize in the summer."
That was Gordie's philosophy too. When the game was on he was pretty much your enemy. When the game was over, best friends. Gordie reminded me that there is a time to have a game-face, a focus on competing and winning.
The third secret that Mr. Hockey taught me was to focus on playing hard, in-game, and play soft with people, post-game.
Gordie has passed, but as with many of our heroes, his influence remains eternal!
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