Gordie Howe taught me how to ice skate.
Before you get too impressed with that claim, or figure I’m blowing steam to sound like a hotshot, I should put things in perspective. A little personal history is in order.
Growing up in Detroit in the postwar years was a terrific experience for a kid. The city was still expanding and flexing its muscles following the explosion of the American auto industry here. And the importance of Detroit as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II further accelerated the city’s reputation as a flourishing urban powerhouse. We had just about everything — a small but dynamic downtown (which welcomed the “real Santa Claus” each year courtesy of the Hudson’s Thanksgiving Parade), surrounded by thriving neighborhoods of unique and colorful local identities.
Believe it or not, the areas north of Six Mile on both the east and west sides of town were considered almost “suburban,“ undergoing constant growth, with new home construction rapidly filling up vacant lots and abandoned farm dwellings up and down the spoke-arteries of Gratiot and Grand River. If you liked archery in, say, 1954 — and we did — you could use the vast vacant fields of vacated farmland south of Eight Mile along Hoover or Schoenherr on the east side to fire arrows long distances or take target practice without bothering a soul.
Our “block” just north of Six Mile Road near Hoover had vacant lots sitting under the beautiful sheltering Elm trees that lined just about every city street. Those lots represented potential housing for the thousands of veterans returning from the war, so if we weren’t firing arrows 120 yards across weedy fields, or playing baseball, football, or hockey — snow permitting — in our streets after school each day, we were jumping into the vast holes or climbing the mountains of dirt that signaled the creation of more new homes along our streets.
One thing we had a ton of in those years from 1945-‘60 was kids. The famous ‘baby boom’ of the postwar was no hollow phrase. Our neighborhood was alive with an army of kids. In our immediate space of about four or five city blocks, we had a “gang” of about 25 or 30 boys who hung out together throughout our pre-teenage years. We even had to divide our group into “the big kids” and “the little kids”; the bigger guys were two to three years older than the little kids, who were comprised mostly of their younger brothers. When we picked teams for street football, we divided each side into, say, five ‘big kids’ and five “little kids” to keep a fair balance.
My brother was three years older than I; therefore I was a “little kid.” And one thing that none of us — big or little — had in this kid-rich environment was something we all wanted — an ice skating rink. There were no postwar-era rinks in our area of town; one that was eventually built in the early ’60s was about five miles away. So we played street hockey in our rubber boots (okay, galoshes — that dreaded word) when the winter weather allowed. The city rarely used salt on even major roads back then, so our neighborhood streets stayed snowy and icy for months, January into March, and we played after school — and then after dinner, under corner streetlights — till our parents called us in for the night.
The city would sometimes (and without warning) flood the grass of a local park, and we would have a skating area where we could occasionally take our games for a vast increase in speed. And that’s where I developed a problem.
Being a little kid, younger and smaller than my brother, I began to “inherit” his skates when winter rolled ‘round. Our Mom would buy new hockey skates for my brother every so often, and he in turn would pass down his old ones to me. And since they were usually about three sizes too big, this involved me wearing three pair of sweatsocks –no kidding — along with rubber “ankle guards” to fill up the boot.
As a result, I never learned to skate worth a bucket of spit, and by the time I was nearly 12 it was just assumed that I had “weak ankles” and was physically unable to handle the demands of hockey skating. Man, how that pained me. I had good hand-eye coordination, could stick handle, pass, and shoot (we had to master those skills to play at our normal slow speeds in the street) but I could never keep up with the play on ice. My buddies slowly learned to skate and grasp ice hockey; I never did.
There were awful ’downers’ that accompanied the 1950s — polio, and the threat of nuclear war, and things like ring worm, an exotic disease that called for the worst headwear in the world. And there was “weak ankles,” an affliction that struck each winter. I even went skating socially once when I was about 12, at the lone rink across town, and was hoping to catch a girl’s eye that Friday night at the get-together.
A kid in our group suggested that we join in the public crowd circling the rink and draw attention to ourselves by pretending we couldn’t skate a lick, and clumsily fall into ourselves and others for a hoot. I figured maybe I could arrange to fall into the girl I felt crushy about. But then the kid looked at me and said … “You won’t have to pretend.”
That was the low-point of my “weak ankles” dilemma. But it was just a few months later that my ice skating life, and my seeming impossible hockey career, was saved by — can you believe it? — merely the greatest hockey player in the history of the entire world. Our city’s hockey god, our savior of the skates … the great Gordie Howe.