By Rob Ficiur
For the last week sports casts have been dedicated to the life of two unique sports figures. Mohamed Ali called himself the greatest. There is no boxer of our day that begins to compare. Gordie Howe was known as Mr. Hockey, 46 years after he first retired from NHL play. Is there a player today who would still be an icon half a century from their retirement? The following are some of the stories and memories of these stars that set them apart.
1. Mohamed Ali began boxing when he was twelve years old. Someone had stolen his bike. He went down to the local gym to tell one of the police men. Cassius Clay (as he was known at the time) said he was going to beat up the person who took his bike. The police man said if you are going to do that you better learn how to fight. Thus began the boxing career of Mohamed Ali. We never did hear if he ever found his bike.
2. Gordie Howe was an NHL rookie in the 1946-47 season. This was one year after the end of World War 2. Sports were different in that era. It would be six years before hockey was broadcast on television. Howe played 26 years in the NHL and six in the World Hockey Association. By the time he retired in 1981 Mr. Hockey had played professional sports in six different decades. In his final season, the 51-year-old scored 15 goals. As the oldest player to ever play in the NHL he was still a contributor.
3. Cassius Clay grew up in a different world than we have today. Racial segregation was a reality for him, even after he won Olympic Gold in 1960. Back home he was still a black first. Clay tried to ignore the segregation rules by going where no colored people were allowed. After he was chased out of that area of town, a disgusted Ali threw his gold medal in the river.
4. Gordie Howe tried to avoid the hero worship that followed him. In 1991 the Detroit Red Wings had a rookie defenseman from Sweden named Nicklas Linstrom. When the rookie asked said he would like to wear uniform number 9. The training staff explained to him that that number was not available. Years later when Linstrom and Mr. Hockey were talking, Gordie said to him, “If you would have asked, I would have let you use the number.”
5. Cassius Clay chose not to fight in the Vietnam War. His choice made him a lightning rod for both sides. His status as world heavy weight boxing champion was not enough to get him a deferral. When he chose to fight the draft, he knew he was risking his entire career. History now tells us that he would be the first (and only) three time World Heavy Weight Boxing champion. But then he was just standing ground against a cause he did not want to give away his life for.
6. Gordie Howe was all about family. After a two year retirement he joined the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. Why would Mr. NHL hockey defect to the WHA? In the rival league Gordie had the chance to play professional hockey with his sons Mark and Marty. This father and son(s) played together for six WHA seasons and on NHL campaign. Playing with his sons was the criteria for where Gordie played his final years. Now, more than three decades later, the Howes remain the only Father / son to play in the NHL together.
7. Both Howe and Ali were available to the public in ways that we may never see again. Sports writer Stephen Brunt talked about stopping by Ali’s home in Michigan unannounced. Mohammed Ali was home so he met with Brunt and his family. Brunt, with his family, became a fan not a reporter as he visited with the champ.
8. Health issues slowed down these stars in their final years. Even before Ali’s last fight, there were signs of the Parkinson’s like tremors. For more than two decades Ali has been dealing with Parkinson’s effect (or Parkinson’s syndrome). The Ali foundation raised money and awareness of this disease, even as it limited the mobility of the former champ. Ali, who had a gift for coming up with great one liners, struggled with speaking in his final years. Twenty years ago, Mohammed Ali lit the Olympic torch to start off the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Game. The Parkinson’s tremours could not stop the champ from fulfilling this choice ceremony.
Howe’s health was limited in different ways. For nearly a decade Gordie looked after his best friend and agent; his wife of 56 years. Coleen Howe died from Pick’s Disease a form of dementia. Gordie spent most of a decade (in his 70’s ) caring for the needs of his wife. Two years ago a stroke nearly killed Gordie. He fought back, regaining his health enough that he was able to attend a tribute dinner in February 2015. The stories shared by those who knew him were a tribute to Mr. Hockey.
Ali and Howe were one of a kind in their own way. If you and I live another 100 years, we will never see anyone like them again.