Doug Wilson negotiated a bowl of cereal as he remembered his first encounter with Gordie Howe.
“You remember those old goals that had the support post down the middle?” he said. “I’m a rookie, and I get knocked into the middle post, and they help me of the ice. And I’m in the dressing room and Gordie walks around the rink to our trainers room and asks me if I’m all right and says, ‘You’re going to be a good player in this league for a long time.’ I’ll never forget that. He didn’t have to do that. He played for the other team, and he did it anyway.”
It was a story without much of a punch line, true, but Howe, who died today at 88 after beating back the effects of a massive stroke four years ago, had a million of those little-bits-of-thoughtfulness stories that defined him as much as the other sporting colossus who passed this week.
Howe was the stereotypical Canadian in ways that Muhammad Ali was the modern American -- meeting the standards expected by their countrymen to fulfill their best sense of themselves.
The two men were not polar opposites, though one would think at first glance that they would be. Howe was exceedingly generous with his time to princes and plain folks alike, and with a polite soft-spoken nature, while Ali was equally profligate with his kindnesses while being his own town crier. The Canadian and American ways, to the nines.
Plus, they had the great athlete’s bizarre duality -- the willingness to with bloodless ruthlessness make others’ behaviors conform to their needs. For Ali, the way he psychologically started his fights months before fight night, especially with Joe Frazier, are a mark of the man as well as his unbendable principles, while Howe used his mighty exoskeleton, especially his professorial elbows and sometimes fists to modify the liberties of opponents. Lou Fontinato’s nose, which Howe cheerily moved several times in what might be his most famous fight, comes immediately to mind.
In either event, they each defined their sports more than their sports defined them. They were perfect for their times and surroundings, Howe in the strictly conformist world of hockey and Ali in the jazz and open-mic-night improvisations both in and out of the ring.
This is the part where someone might say, “Thus it is fitting that they passed in the same week,” but death is never fitting for the good. It’s a reminder of the indiscriminate cruelty of the human body, where entropy and death are the payoff for everyone. Besides, both Ali and Howe had more we wanted, if not necessarily more to give.
Both became frail before they passed -- Ali to the Parkinson’s disease that quite likely was caused by the rigors of being hit as well as hitting, Howe to a crushing stroke (that he beat back). Between them, they explained the cultures of their times -- the roiling ruckuses of an America in transition and the stolid courtliness and forbearance of the Canadian heartland.
So maybe it is only fortuitous circumstance that both Ali and Howe died in the same week, and the other bridges we want to fashion between the two men are of our own creation. Giants do not normally die in tandem (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams notwithstanding), and while these two are connected more in the time of their departures than anything else, they defined their places in history in ways that their contemporaries and acolytes can only imagine in wonder and awe. Howe’s funeral will be covered in Canada as Ali’s was here, and his influence upon his nation will endure in its way as Ali’s will here.
It is the nature of things, and maybe remembering one from time to time will help us remember the other. So maybe if they had to go in the same week, they’ll have accomplished that much, and that much is more than most of us could ever dream.
Put it like this. Had Doug Wilson chosen boxing, one could have easily imagined Muhammad Ali doing for him what Gordie Howe did lo those decades ago.