Mister Hockey

Gordie Howe
March 31, 1928 – June 10, 2016

If you are from Michigan, and have been involved in hockey in any way, chances are you have a Gordie Howe story.  Learning of his passing from a friend who I was having lunch with at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, MI, rekindled memories of my brief moments with this legendary man.

The oldest memory has been with me for decades.  It hung in my parents’ basement until recently when it found a place in mine.

My aunt worked for the Ford Motor Car Company.  In June, 1972, after Gordie retired from 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and before he signed with the Houston Aeros of the WHA, Ford hosted an event where they brought Gordie in to sign autographs.  I was nine-years-old and had recently found hockey to be my favorite spectator sport.  I attended my first hockey game on January 9, 1971 – a 3-2 Detroit victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia.  My parents talked up Gordie, while I, being a youngster in the 70’s, was drawn to Gary Unger, and his flowing long hair (The Wings’ traded Unger less than a month after my first hockey game).

At the Ford event, Gordie was situated at a table.  My mom took some photos of me standing near him or with me in the background.

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Can you imagine a kid being allowed to get this close to a sports superstar today?

We then stood in line and waited to have him sign my autograph book.  When my turn came, I nervously and silently placed my autograph book before him.  He didn’t open it.  Instead, he noticed the shirt I was wearing.  He took the shirt at my waist and pulled it toward him.  Then he pressed the ballpoint pen against the material, signing his name.  I was stunned.  A few days later, a Ford photographer at the event talked to my aunt at her office, saying he had photos of Gordie autographing my shirt.  He gave them to her, and my parents framed the shirt and photos.  Touched my greatness, I was inspired.  That fall, I signed up for the only season of sports I ever played – a house-hockey league at the Plymouth Cultural Center.

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Hanging on the wall in my parents’ house, it always reminded me about how attentive and kind this man was.  As the years went by, and I became more involved as a fan, spectator, booster club president, photographer, and columnist in the sport, it was also a reminder of the contrast between him and the next generation of superstars.  He did not think his superstar status made him superior to us.  He was one of us, appreciative of our adoration.

I remember watching the 1979-80 NHL All Star game.  No.  Scratch that.  I remember nothing about the game.  It was played at the brand new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and the only thing that mattered was the pre-game player introductions, saving the Hartford Whalers’ right winger for last.

Still gives me chills.  Man’s example of humility.

Though the 1979-80 season was his final year of hockey, he was not done.  There was one record yet to break.

I started photographing and writing for Great Lakes Hockey Alliance – a free monthly newsprint hockey publication covering all the Michigan hockey teams in the NHL, IHL, UHL, OHL, & CCHA – in 1997.  I photographed Detroit Vipers’ games at The Palace of Auburn Hills.  It was magical timing.  After so many photos from the stands, having a press pass and seeing my photos published was thrilling.  To cap it off, the Detroit Vipers won the 1997 Turner Cup, allowing me to go on the ice, capture team and player shots with the Cup, and the celebration in the locker room afterward with players’ friends and family.  Life was good.  Then, it got better.

For the home opener of the 1997-98 season, not only would the Vipers raise the Turner Cup Champion banner, they would start the season with #9, Mister Hockey, in the line-up.  It was an opportunity for Gordie Howe to be the only athlete to play a professional sport in six decades, breaking Minnie Minoso’s record of playing in Major League Baseball in five decades.   Minoso was present at the event.

Things were definitely different that evening.  The press box was overflowing with reporters from across the globe, as I went to pick up my media notes.

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When I descended from the heights of the stadium to my usual spot at ice level – the box between the players’ benches – three photographers had climbed in to get photos.  They did not like shooting through the glass, so one-by-one they climbed out.  I reclaimed my place.

The Palace, packed with 20,182 fans, provided another standing ovation for #9.

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He skated the first shift; forty-seven seconds of historic ice time.  Vipers defenseman, Bobby Jay, moved the puck into the Kansas City Blades’ zone, then passed it to Howe, who redirected the puck on net.  Another shot on goal to his professional career statistics.

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Gordie coming back to the bench after his shift.

He stayed on the bench during the first and second period, not returning for the third.  Which was too bad.  At the end of the third period, the score was tied 4-4.  The IHL had the shootout as a way of breaking ties (the NHL did not implement the shootout until 2005, nineteen years after the IHL adopted it in 1986).  Imagine if Gordie had been on the bench for the shootout, skated onto the ice, went one-on-one with the goalie, and scored.  Would The Palace have had to rebuild its roof?

The power of Gordie Howe transcended generations.  The following season, the Vipers celebrated his 70th birthday as a promotion night.  I arrived early at the game, and was walking through the corridor by the locker rooms.  Most Vipers games started at 7:30, with the doors opening to the public at 6PM.  Before the doors opened to the public, little league hockey teams would play on the ice.  I stood in the hallway as the kids – probably the same age I was when Gordie signed my shirt – waddled by on the blades of their skates, weighed down by their equipment, on their way to the locker room.  Gordie, randomly patted one of the kids on his helmet as he walked by and said, “You played good.”  The kid looked up, then stopped.  Awestruck.  The look on his face was one of a kid empowered. Gordie Howe said I played good.

Those are my fond memories of Gordie Howe.

Rest in Peace, Mister Hockey.

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On the road to Cincinnati, World Cup looming, and the time warp of the four day work week.

Friday, Finally:  May 30, 2014

-Keeping this one brief, as I’m heading south to Cincinnati today.  Our men in rouge and gold travel for their first road game of the season to the big city nearest the home of my little sister and her family.  The last time I made one of these kind of runs was back in the day when the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League traveled to Cincy to beat up on the Cincinnati Cyclones, time and time again.  It appears a few of the Northern Guard Supporters will be making the trip.  Still, if I am the only DCFC fan at the game, it will be more fans than Cincinnati sent up to Detroit back on May 10th.  DCFC has a 3-0-0 record, and have yet to concede a goal.

– Speaking of soccer, it’s less than two weeks away from the start of the World Cup.  Almost a full month of daily soccer starting with 32 teams and concluding with the World Cup Final on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro.  To many, soccer is a religion.  Does this mean we should have a worldwide international holiday during this month?

– Does anyone else experience four-day work weeks like I do?  Due to the Memorial Day holiday, Tuesday felt like Monday to me, but then Wednesday felt like Thursday to me.  I was ready for it to be Friday yesterday morning, but instead, another Thursday happened.  Weird.

– What are you reading this weekend?  I’m close to finishing Ted Morgan’s biography of Somerset Maugham.  I’m also close to finishing the collection of essays, How Can You Represent Those People? edited by Abbe Smith and Monroe H. Freedman.

-Quote for the week:
“Strange as it may seem, I grew to like to defend men and women charged with crime.  It soon came to be something more than the winning or losing of the case.  I sought to learn why one goes one way and another takes an entirely different road.  I became vitally interested in the causes of human conduct.  This meant more than the quibbling with lawyers and juries…I was dealing with life, with its hopes and fears, its aspirations and despairs.  With me it was going to the foundation of motive and conduct and adjustments for human beings, instead of blindly talking of hatred and vengeance, and that subtle, indefinable quality that men call ‘justice’ and of which nothing really is known.”  Clarence Darrow.

Have a great weekend!

Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012. Photo by Michael Kitchen
Photo by Michael Kitchen
Photo by Michael Kitchen

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Understanding your sports fanatic friend.

DSC02971According to the countdown clock on the Columbus Crew website, there are 35 days and change until the league’s opening match to the 2013 season.  And closer to home, Detroit City FC’s season is to begin a couple months later.  The excitement of the coming season has risen to a fever pitch with me.  Last year, I attended more live soccer matches than in previous years.  Even taking out DCFC’s full eight match season, and the handful of games I saw the Michigan Bucks play, my trips to Columbus tripled to see the Crew in action.

This entry is for friends, family and loved ones of the person known as a sports fanatic.  The person you know who schedules their life around games; who bleeds the colors of their team and goes to extremes to follow their team; who seems to care little about the mundane things in life, or even the important things.  I hope that by the end of this writing, you will understand your friend, family member, or loved one better.

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby’s classic, Fever Pitch.  It is a no-apologies memoir of sports fanaticism.  Hornby is a rabid Arsenal fan, and his journal of matches and how they relate to his life reveals the mindset of a team loyalist, while also addressing issues within the sport of soccer, (racism, stadium tragedies, etc).  His life is marked and connected to the Arsenal.

There is one passage in Hornby’s book that really sinks in.  He described his greatest moment ever.

On May 26, 1989, Arsenal’s last match of the season was at Liverpool.  In order for Arsenal to win the championship, they would have to beat Liverpool by two goals.  The Gunners scored early in the second half, but Hornby had resigned to defeat as the game went into stoppage time.  Then Michael Thomas burst through the Liverpool defense and scored, giving Arsenal the league championship and Hornby a moment of delirium.

In seeking a metaphor to describe the feeling, Hornby declined the orgasm analogy, and stated why:

 Even though there is no question that sex is a nicer activity than watching football (no nil-nil draws, no offsidetrap, no cup upsets, and you’re warm), in the normal run of things, the feelings it engenders are simply not as intense as those brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute Championship winner.

None of the moments that people describe as the best in their lives seem analogous to me.  Childbirth must be extraordinarily moving, but it doesn’t really have the crucial surprise element, and in any case lasts too long; the fulfillment of personal ambition – promotions, awards, what have you – doesn’t have the last-minute time factor, nor the element of powerlessness that I felt that night.  And what else is there that can possibly provide suddenness?  A huge pools win, maybe, but the gaining of large sums of money affects a different part of the psyche altogether, and has none of the communal ecstasy of football.

There is then, literally, nothing to describe it.  I have exhausted all the available   options.  I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for that long?), nor can I recall anything else that I have desired as both man and boy.  So please, be tolerant of those who    describe a sporting moment as their best ever.  We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.  (Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, [Riverhead Books, 1998], 222-23).

Hornby reminded me a lot of myself back in my hockey fan days.  It became an obsession applied when I was the president of the Ontario Hockey League team, Detroit Jr. Red Wings (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons.  Then, the Detroit Vipers claimed the Palace of Auburn Hills home, and my passion settled in a permanent location.

In 1997, I was fortunate to be photographing Detroit Vipers games for my friend’s hockey publication.  The Vipers ended the season with the best record, and marched through the Turner Cup playoffs.  Where games were proximately close (like Kalamazoo and Cleveland) I would make the trip for at least one of the road games.  Their opponent in the Turner Cup Finals was the equally tough Long Beach Ice Dogs who had an ungodly undefeated streak at home.

The format was two games at the Palace, three in Long Beach, then back home for two games, if necessary, in Detroit.  The teams split the games at the Palace, and it seemed unlikely that the series would end in Long Beach.  But the Vipers pulled the surprise, winning the next two games in California, taking a 3-1 lead in the series and the potential of winning the Cup in Long Beach on a Friday night.

So damn close to being with the winners, I decided I had to make the flight to LAX and get to that game.  However, the Ice Dogs would not go down at home, and I had to get back to Detroit for the Father’s Day, Sunday evening Game Six of the series.  The Vipers won, 2-0, the on-ice festivities and locker room partying will never be forgotten.

Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup. Photo by Michael Kitchen

It was one of those moments that Hornby described.  Following hockey for so long, this was unlike anything I ever experienced.  Not being an athlete myself, I never thought I’d ever come this close to this sensation.  It remains the greatest moment in my life.  Even though I wasn’t on the ice, delivering a check or setting up a goal that made a difference in the game, I was a part of it.  All I was doing was shooting film.  Having been situated between the players’ benches all season, I was there in the trenches.  When I was in the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ building ninety minutes prior to Game Five, Phil von Stefenelli – one of the Vipers’ defensemen – was going through his pre-game ritual outside the locker room, and gave me the nod of recognition and camaraderie.

I get the Hudson Street Hooligans of the Columbus Crew.  I get the Northern Guard Supporters and Motor City Supporters as they cheer and chant in the filled to capacity visitor’s bleachers at Cass Tech High School for the Detroit City FC games.

Hopefully, this helps you understand your sports fanatical loved one.  He or she has developed a deep emotional connection to their team performing on its athletic stage.  I can’t speak for all fanatics, but after that once-in-a-lifetime moment comes true, it opens one up to new avenues.  But the connection never dies.  The Detroit Vipers became defunct in 2002, but it will always be my favorite hockey team.  And though Columbus Crew and Detroit City FC have arteries running into my ventricles, I don’t feel a need to have my life consumed by them.  I still will attend every DCFC home game, and will make one or more trips to Columbus, my vacation soccer home, and make sure I can see as many of their matches on the tellie.

Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012. Photo by Michael Kitchen

The 40-year relationship is over.

January 19th, the NHL season will finally get underway.  I really don’t care.

This should concern me (and anyone who really knows me).  I marveled at the sport ever since the days of my youth.  And even though I’ve never had an athletic bone in my body, in gym class I excelled at floor hockey.

I wasn’t a casual viewer.  No, I was someone who…

  1. still has the program from the first hockey game I attended live (January 9, 1971, Detroit Red Wings vs Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia in Detroit).  Larry Brown is on the cover, and the Wings won 3-2;
  2. collected hockey cards from 1970 up through the late 1990’s;
  3. shared two season tickets to the Red Wings for three seasons (1989-90, 1990-91, and 1991-92);
  4. was the booster club president for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings of the OHL (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons (1992-93 and 1993-94);
  5. photographed the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League (IHL) and wrote a column in a local hockey publication for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons (Great Lakes Hockey Alliance);
  6. traveled to places like Kalamazoo, MI; London & Niagara Falls & Owen Sound, Ontario; Montreal & Quebec City, Quebec; Long Beach, CA; Buffalo, NY; and Cincinnati, OH to watch live hockey;
  7. was the commissioner of a fantasy hockey league that spanned over a decade; and
  8. continues to wear vintage Detroit Vipers jackets appropriate for the season.

Why is this forty-year relationship coming to an end?  Perhaps the sport and I have just grown too far apart.

The first signs occurred after the IHL folded.  In 1994, the Detroit Vipers emerged at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which provided quality, entertaining and affordable hockey.  The IHL was a minor hockey league dating back to 1945.  With the NHL locking out its players during the 1994-95 season, the IHL expanded into areas to compete with NHL franchises.  Along with Detroit, the league added teams in Minnesota and Chicago.

I followed the Cincinnati Cyclones the year previous, as my sister and her family lived across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  But it didn’t take long for my blood to flow the aqua and eggplant of the Vipers.  I attended the team’s very first game (a 7-3 victory over the Cleveland Lumberjacks on September 30, 1994) and their very last game (a 3-2 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears on April 14, 2001) at the Palace.  I still have my photo passes for the June 15, 1997 game where they won the Turner Cup against the Long Beach Ice Dogs, and the October 3, 1997 game where Gordie Howe took to the ice for one shift as a Viper.  The memories are endless, and all of them fond.  The Vipers folded, and my passion for the sport waned.

Stan Drulia of the Detroit VipersPhoto by Michael Kitchen
Stan Drulia of the Detroit Vipers
Photo by Michael Kitchen

NHL ownership greed pushed me away.  Three lockouts which shortened this season and the 1994-95 campaign, and completely cancelled the 2004-05 season.  How does a tradition establish and maintain itself with this kind of off-ice instability?  Such gaps provide the opening for other interests to emerge.

The game itself went in another direction.  For each step forward that the league made, such as the elimination of the two-line pass, the game retreated a couple of steps because of the oppressive push to eliminate fighting from the game.  I’m not the biggest fan of fighting, but the role of the enforcer insured that players were held accountable for their brutal acts on the ice.  With that element removed, players have been able to injure each other with intent, and the league assuming punishments of suspensions and fines would provide adequate retribution.

The first game I attended back in 1971, no one wore a helmet.  In fact, the Buffalo goaltender, Joe Daley, didn’t wear a mask.  In those days, you didn’t have the concussions and injuries to superstars that you have in today’s game.  The addition of helmets and goalie masks are acceptable safety precautions.  However, it has lessened respect for each other on the ice, and the elimination of instant justice, coupled with the faster pace of the game has allowed for a more dangerous sport, especially for the marquee players.

Dissatisfied, frustrated, and watching the game grow away from me, a past lover returned in my life, which sparked what has become a renewed passion and rekindled love: soccer.

In 1978, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  It was their first year in the league and Trevor Francis made the experience magical.  Arriving after the first eleven games of the season (finishing his English season with Nottingham Forest), Francis destroyed opposing team’s defenses scoring 22 goals and 10 assists in 19 matches.  The first game I saw live was July 30, 1978 where the Express defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (and legendary keeper Gordon Banks) 4-2.  Francis scored two goals and assisted on another.  I also attended the first round playoff match – a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Fury, with Francis netting the only goal.

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Trevor Francis triple-teamed by the California Surf.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

I got to a few more games at the Silverdome in 1979 and 1980, and watched as much of the NASL that was televised.  But then I was off to college and the Express and NASL went the way of other defunct professional sports leagues.

On June 28, 2000, while vacationing and visiting friends in Washington DC, I attended a DC United match.  The LA Galaxy beat DC United 2-1 that evening, but the love of the sport that had been in hibernation for 20 years was reborn.  A couple years later I got to my first Columbus Crew game, and since then, there’s been no turning back.

Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Eddie Gaven of the Crew dribbles through Stoke City of the English Premiere League.
Photo by Michael Kitchen

The hockey cards I’m slowly selling off on eBay, and in place I have almost a complete collection of every MLS card set available.  I find myself able to watch, at most, a period of hockey, but I can lose two hours in the blink of an eye if Arsenal is on the telly.  I do miss going to Detroit Viper games, however neither the Plymouth Whalers or Detroit Red Wings motivate me to purchase a ticket.  But I’ll eagerly make the four-hour drive to Columbus for a Crew match.  Given the choice, I’d take a ticket to a Detroit City FC match and sit amongst the Northern Guard, Le Rouge Supporters and Motor City Supporters than an ice level seat amongst the suits at the Joe Louis Arena.

I could conclude that the death of hockey’s influence on my life is a part of a maturing process.  Other interests such as civic duties, promoting change and protesting the elements in society that promote a destructive status quo, immersing in my profession, and just trying to make the world a little bit better place then it was when I got here was prioritized higher than being entertained by sport.

Yet soccer has moved in and occupied hockey’s place in my life.  Perhaps that, too, is evident of a maturing process.  Hockey, despite what Gary Bettman tries to promote, is a regional sport, conducive to areas where winter’s breath creates the field of dream in backyards and ponds and streets of everyday life.  Soccer is global and its fans and players are a global community.  The sun never sets on the beautiful game, for I can follow Arsenal in the English Premiere League from August to May, and attend Columbus Crew matches from March through October.  And with matches played on a weekly, rather than three or more times a week basis, a two-hour soccer match once a week leaves time open for other, more noble and mature pursuits.

After forty years, both hockey and I have grown in different directions.  It was fun and formative.  But it is time to move on.

Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit City FC thanks you for attending.
Photo by Michael Kitchen