It’s not Gordie Howe’s puckhandling or his shot that Bernie Swendson remembers most about the hockey legend. It’s his pyjamas.
Over 25 years ago Swendson, a Nelson native involved in local hockey, was asked to give Howe a lift back to Spokane after Mr. Hockey took part in the Ernie Gare Scholarship Celebration Mid-summer Hockey Classic. When they arrived, Swendson couldn’t find a hotel room of his own so he crashed on a cot in Howe’s room.
Two memories of that night stick out to Swendson. First, Howe asked to keep the bathroom light on. “He says, ‘I’m in so many hotel rooms I can never figure out where I am or my way around,'” recalls Swendson.
Second, the then-62-year-old Howe wore green scrubs to bed.
“His son [Murray] was a doctor, and that was his pyjamas. He had the bottoms on and I’ve never seen a physique like that in my life. He was just huge and it was amazing what he looked like.”
Howe, who passed away June 10, was the star of the show when the charity game was played July 28, 1990 at the Civic Arena. It remains one of the biggest sports events in Nelson history.
Former world champion and Olympic gold medallist downhill skier Nancy Greene Raine co-hosted the event with Howe, but they were just two names on a program that reads like a who’s-who of both local and national sports legends. Danny and Morey Gare were there in memory of their late father, as were local NHLers Pat Price, Simon Wheeldon, Greg Adams and Mike Laughton. Craig McTavish, having just won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers, was also on the bench coaching the Nelson junior Maple Leafs, who played against a different set of celebrity players from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s each period.
But Howe was the draw for the 1,200 fans who packed the Civic. Danny Gare remembers the line that stretched out of the arena down Vernon St. toward Gyro Park prior to the game.
“It was just unbelievable,” said Gare. “It was one of the special moments for me and Gordie and our family and the city of Nelson for that matter to have Mr. Hockey come out and help out on a special occasion.”
It was Gare who asked Howe to come to Nelson. He’d played briefly against Howe in the NHL and recalled sitting next to him in the dressing room at his first all-star game in 1980, which also happened to be Howe’s last. Gare asked Howe if he’d meet with his parents. “He came over, sat and talked to them for 20 minutes, gave my mom and dad a hug,” said Gare. “He was just such a class [act], a tremendous individual. I’ll never forget that.”
Howe actually had an indirect connection to Nelson prior to his visit. His brother Vic played for the senior Nelson Maple Leafs during the 1955-56 season.
The weekend of festivities included a celebrity golf game, an auction and banquet for the Ernie Gare Scholarship, and of course the hockey game.
Current Leafs head coach Mario DiBella was in goal for the third period. He doesn’t recall much of what happened on ice, but remembers how Howe was off it. “Just the kindness that the man exhibited,” said DiBella. “He was a people person, quite remarkable and generous with his time. He’d take time to talk to you and not interrupt you when you were talking to him.”
Howe, who played without a helmet, took the ice for the first and second periods but had to leave midway through the third to cross the border in time before his flight.
Former Leafs player and coach Bill McDonnell was behind the bench for the celebrity team and still likes to joke about the time he coached Mr. Hockey, although in reality he did his best not to give Howe any directions.
“It was just kind of this total respect for the gentleman and awe at him being here,” said McDonnell. “Being a very small part of that event was a thrill.”
BCTV anchor John McKeachie hosted the banquet and ended up leading all scorers with two goals and three assists during the celebrity team’s 11-4 win over the Leafs. Gare still laughs when he remembers McKeachie’s on-ice antics.
“His best line, he’s always wanted to say, was ‘I got Howe’ coming off the ice. He was pretty happy.”
When he was done playing, Howe got in the car with Swendson and started the drive to the border. At one point Howe teased Swendson about how slow he was driving.
“I say, ‘I don’t want to become infamous for being the guy who killed Gordie Howe in a car accident. I want to get you down there and get you on this plane.’ And then we laughed,” said Swendson. “We talked about fishing and Detroit and stuff like that.”
They stopped several times, and Howe was always asked by someone for an autograph. He had a book handy for the moment, and even played a joke on a fan by having Swendson add his signature to the paper.
Decades later, the game and especially the road trip with Mr. Hockey remain in Swendson’s memory as though they happened yesterday.
“We had Dennis Potvin and Garry Unger and all kinds of people who came through [Nelson],” said Swendson. “But that was the peak. That was something really special.”