One of the coolest things about growing up in Detroit was the Belle Isle Casino.
Located on the north side of the island, within view of the exotic Windsor coast, the Casino had to be about the greatest outdoor skating site in the whole country. The indoor hut had great benches for putting on skates, and a terrific refreshment stand serving hot chocolate and hot dogs and stuff.
But outdoors it was just phenomenal. The connected canals and lagoons twisted and curved around beautiful small islands and ran along the road that bordered Belle Isle’s northern edge. At night, the scene was right out of a storybook: There were great floodlights that lit the canals, and people parked along the roads in their cars, often turning their lights onto the ice so as to watch the skaters go by. It had to be the most romantic site in Detroit, especially in a light Friday evening snowfall; something that meant jack squat to me and my buddies when we were lucky enough to get to Belle Isle on a winter day to play hockey on some corner of the vast public layout.
Playing hockey at Belle Isle, or at least trying to, was where my inability to ice skate really showed, and hurt the most. If somebody’s mom or dad drove us to the island, we were able to put in five or six hour hockey marathons of nonstop play … a cold afternoon that usually felt ten or twelve hours long to a kid with “weak ankles.”
But blind fate struck, good fortune entered my life in the late fall of 1959 in the person of none other than the fabled Number Nine, the world’s greatest hockey hero, Gordie Howe.
Everyone in our neighborhood adored Howe. How great it was to grow up in Detroit in the ‘50s and have a role model and sports hero like Gordie. That he was the game’s greatest player was just part of his appeal; his qualities as a human being were just as known and celebrated in our town. And it was his rare role as an author that saved the day for me.
In the late ‘50s and early 1960s, I believe, the Detroit News ran a question-and-answer feature on their Saturday sports page called “Ask Gordie.” I never missed reading it; the column had neat little hockey tips and stories about his days with the Red Wings. But the entry that really caught my eye was one that ran in maybe October of November of 1959. A kid wrote to Gordie, saying that he had “weak ankles” (at least that’s what his parents told him) and he wondered how, if ever, he could deal with the problem and begin to play ice hockey.
Gordie’s answer hit me like a bullet: There was no such thing as weak ankles. Let me repeat that. There was no such thing as weak ankles. Nope. Number Nine said there was only, instead, ill-fitting skates! (Now, I never use exclamation points when I write, but this news rated the exception.) Howe said that kids can ONLY skate in boots that fit the foot. In fact, he said he personally wore a hockey skate one and a half to two sizes smaller than his shoe size to insure the snuggest possible fit. And he told the kid who wrote the letter to pass that answer on to his parents, and urge them to buy him proper skates, and to stop making him wear his older brother’s hand-me-downs.
Holy moley, that column was in my mother’s hands immediately. Her weak-ankled son ran through the house to deliver the news. And, God bless her, that Christmas I got my first real pair of skates — beautiful black Bauer hockey specials, with the cool high backs, size six and a half. (I wore a six-and-a-half shoe and had asked for size sixes; my mother liked Gordie Howe but she wasn’t going to be a fanatic about buying me new skates every year. Let Gordie’s mother buy HIM new ones each Christmas.)
They really were beauties. If you were ever a “weak-ankled” kid like I was, you will believe me when I tell you that I wore them in bed several nights before getting them out to a rink. And it wasn’t long, swear to Gordie (he being practically a deity in Detroit) that I began to skate. Tentatively at first. And then faster, and steadier … and steadier and faster as I went.
And we went out to Belle Isle, to that beautiful lagoon, one freezing cold and beautifully bright Saturday in January. About six of us “little guys.” I had just turned 13, and was geeked to be there. And suddenly I could skate with them all, and by the end of that day I thought I was skating even better than some. I was learning to stop fast and throw ice. When the puck flew out of our area and down the lagoon, I was only too glad to volunteer to chase it down. I felt that good; skating felt that good, that clean, that fast. Boy, did I love those black Bauer skates.
I had been saved, ain’t it grand, by Gordie Howe. I went on to play on a Detroit Parks and Recreation team at Gallagher Park just a year later, on a team that advanced to the city championship playoffs. I played three seasons of competitive team hockey through my high school years, and even coached a team of 10 – 12 year olds when I was in college. And, yup, some of the kids on that team thought they had been cursed with weak ankles too.
Thanks to Howe, and my Mom, those skates opened up hockey in my life. I even — get this, no kidding — played alongside Gordie on a charity team that he skated with during the two years of his short-lived retirement here in town in 1972 and ‘73.
Naw, I never got up the nerve to tell him. But how’s that for irony? And how’s that for a happy — and unlikely — ending?