Gil LeBreton

Rest in peace, Gordie Howe, my old poker ‘buddy’

Legendary hockey star Gordie Howe, shown here in a 2003 photo, played with the Detroit Red Wings for 25 seasons. Howe passed away Friday at age 88. (Susan Tusa/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
Legendary hockey star Gordie Howe, shown here in a 2003 photo, played with the Detroit Red Wings for 25 seasons. Howe passed away Friday at age 88. (Susan Tusa/Detroit Free Press/TNS) TNS

Gordie Howe's passing Friday brought back memories of a unique night when our paths crossed over, of all things, a game of poker.

The year was 1977, long before the Dallas Stars were even a twinkle in Norm Green's eye, but you didn't have to grow up in Saskatchewan to know who the great Gordie Howe was.

Howe and the Detroit Red Wings, in fact, had played in the first hockey game I ever saw -- a no-helmets, Original Six clash at the old Chicago Stadium against Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Phil Esposito and the Black Hawks.

I never thought that night that I would one day be sitting next to Howe, watching him "cheat" at poker.

The occasion was the annual awards gathering of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association in Salisbury, N.C., where a highlight of the affair used to be a casino night, the kind with faux wagering where the chips could be exchanged for door prizes.

Honored media from around the country regularly attended the NSSA event, along with an invited supporting cast of sports celebrities who were there to eat, drink and be lightly interviewed. I have a picture somewhere from one of the NSSA events of me with legendary Olympian Jesse Owens. In another photo, I'm standing between Red Smith and Jim Murray, two faces straight from sportswriting’s Mt. Rushmore.

Somehow, therefore, I ended up sitting that night in 1977 at a poker table that included Howe, his fellow Detroit icon and baseball great Al Kaline, media mogul and Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner and pro bowler Loa Boxberger (Google her).

Howe was 49 at the time, but was still playing hockey for the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros. To be accurate, he was on the Aeros roster, but arrived at the Salisbury event nursing (if memory serves) a broken foot. He was on crutches and his foot was covered by a plaster cast.

As the casino night went on and the free drinks flowed, I remember that Turner regaled us -- well, regaled Loa Boxberger, mostly -- with tales of his America's Cup sailing days. Howe and Kaline, meanwhile, traded barbs as old friends do.

Howe kept his injured foot elevated on a stool next to him. I remember this, because he kept stashing random aces in his plaster cast. Whenever his dealt hand called for one, Gordie would reach down and retrieve an ace and, laughing heartily, win the hand over Kaline, who kept muttering how "lucky" Howe was.

Howe returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers the following season and finally retired in 1980 at the age of 52. He was 88 when he passed away Friday.

If hockey had a Mt. Rushmore, he'd be on it.

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