Bobby Orr has fond memories of the first time he ever met Gordie Howe. The Red Wings star was in Parry Sound, Ont., for an appearance and the young Orr was one of the many excited young fans who waited in line for the chance to meet Mr. Hockey.
Years later they would meet again on the ice as opponents, with Orr making his NHL debut against Detroit. During a foray deep into the offensive zone, the young defenceman had another run-in with hockey's toughest winger that he'd never forget.
"Before I went by the net I threw a pass out," Orr said with a chuckle. "I was kind of looking over my shoulder at my pretty pass and the next thing you know I was lying on the ice. It was some guy by the name of Howe. I think he wanted to let the kid know that he was the king. It was a great lesson: Don't be watching your pretty passes when certain guys are on the ice, especially Gordie."
Has there ever been a more fitting nickname in sport than Howe's famous moniker?
Howe did, after all, lace up his skates 2,421 times in 32 seasons over five decades as a pro, winning four Stanley Cups, six Hart Trophies as the NHL's most valuable player and six Art Ross Trophies as the NHL's leading scorer. He's the only man to score more than 100 points in a season after the age of 40. He racked up 508 points in 419 World Hockey Association games before playing one last NHL season at the age of 52, where he appeared in 80 games for the Hartford Whalers.
Howe's historic career is the bulk of his new autobiography Mr. Hockey: My Story, out Oct. 14, but the book is also a chance to share the rest of his life with fans – from growing up on the outskirts of Saskatoon during the Great Depression to battling homesickness as he chased his hockey dream to meeting the love of his life in a bowling alley in Detroit and starting a family of his own.
Howe's declining health prevents him from doing any promotion for the latest book on his life, but fellow hockey legend Orr, who wrote the foreword to the book, is happy to promote the work of the man he considers not only a friend, but the greatest player in hockey history.
"I sometimes go on the internet to look at Gordie's numbers and I giggle," Orr said. "Back then, 20 goals was big and he did it 22 consecutive years. Think about it – 20 consecutive years he was in the top five of scoring in the NHL during a period with six teams. It was such a tough league back then.
"And look what he did after he left the league. He played in the WHA with both his boys! My God! He played 30-plus years of professional hockey. It's crazy. The guy was incredible."
Howe writes at length about his childhood, which was spent playing baseball, hunting and fishing in the summers and searching for shinny games in the winter. Howe attributes the countless hours spent playing on Saskatchewan's frozen sloughs, gullies and ponds – often in a pair of street shoes with a metal straight blade attached to the soles –with helping to develop his legendary strength and balance.
He's open about his struggles. He was painfully shy and missed home at his first pro training camp in 1943 with the New York Rangers in Winnipeg. He regrets walking away from his education as a teenager. He shakes his head at the way long-time Red Wings coach and general manager Jack Adams ruled the team with an iron fist.
"I don't think there ever has been, or ever will be, a player like Gordie," Orr said. "His book is a must read. He was a special player and is a special man. He really paved the way for the rest of us and he should be recognized for that."
Howe lays out his basic hockey philosophy that guided his long career for the reader, writing that the two most important things a player needs to survive in the pro game are time and space. Howe wasn't afraid to get physical to buy himself either, whether that took an elbow, fist or stick.
"I found that a surefire way to earn a wider berth the next time I came around was to give someone a good crack," he writes. "If his teammates took away a message as well, then so much the better. I'm aware that not everyone approved of how I played, but I don't think apologies are in order."
As mean as he could be on the ice, Howe clearly has a softer side that came out as soon as he got away from the rink. The book contains a number of letters he wrote future wife Colleen while the two were dating but apart during the off-season. In a chapter titled My Most Important Team, there are tender letters from Colleen, then at home with a young and expanding family, to Howe at training camp in Sault Ste. Marie. He writes about his four children with great pride and professes his love for the city of Detroit and Red Wings fans.
"He's very soft-spoken and a gentleman at all times," Orr said. "He represented the league like not many players do. Some of the younger players know Gordie Howe, but I think it's important more people read about him and really understand his greatness. As time goes by you kind of forget the older fellas. I think it's very important to read this book and understand that what this man did was incredible."