Flying with Gordie Howe, how I met my childhood idol

Gordie Howe, my childhood idol, dies at 88. Here is the story of how I met him in adulthood.
Gordie Howe, my childhood idol, dies at 88.

Gordie Howe has died at 88. The man called Mr. Hockey was born into a poor family near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1928. I idolized him when I was a boy and wanted desperately to play professional hockey one day. Here is the story of  how I  finally encountered Gordie in my adulthood back in 1994. 

Please note: this is a repost

It was early March and minus 30 degrees in Regina, Saskatchewan. The prairies had endured a two-month deep freeze. I was awakened in my hotel room that Saturday morning by the growling sound of car motors turning over slowly, then dying, and the distinctive crunch that tires make on snow when it is that cold.

Later, at the airport terminal, I learned that my flight to Edmonton was delayed so I half-heartedly turned to reading a newspaper. When I looked across the small waiting room, I noticed a slope-shouldered man leaning against the wall. Big, but not bulky, he was perhaps 60 years old, with deep lines in his tanned face and thinning grey hair.

He was dressed casually in a pair of beige cotton twill pants and he wore a dark blue sweatshirt over a white turtleneck. He squinted at the clock across the room and blinked several times in quick succession. There was something about him which was familiar.

The next time I looked up, he was being approached by a stout woman in a bright red coat. She offered him a writing pad and a pen, blushing robustly as she did so. He took the pen, signed deliberately and handed the autographed page back with a slight smile which brought an even brighter flush to her face.

The seat beside mine

Then he surveyed the room and spotting an empty seat he walked over and dropped into the seat beside mine. He began to shuffle with some papers, removed a stocky felt pen from his pocket and laboriously made some thick-nibbed notes. I had been an amused spectator but now I had a dilemma.

Should I tell him how as a child I loved winter, no matter how cold it became, because I could play hockey? Every day after school I went to the outdoor rink in our little Saskatchewan town until supper time, playing pickup with anybody who was willing. Immediately after supper I ran all the way back to the rink, before the other kids came for night skating. In that half hour I would spread shovels and scrapers the length of the ice, then I would take a puck and stick handle my way through the maze, up, around and back, again and again, believing completely all the while that one day I would play in the NHL.

Should I greet him? Say his name? Shake his hand? Ask for his autograph? “I met your dad once,” I found myself saying, “when I was a kid.” He looked at me with a steady hazel-eyed gaze, giving away nothing, as though I was a goalie and he was waiting for me to move first.

“It was out behind the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon. My father went in for a beer and left me sitting in the car with the motor running and the heater on. A little while later he came out with an old guy and he said, `I want you to meet Gordie Howe’s dad.’”

A slow smile lit Gordie’s face. “Yeah, that’d be like the old man,” he said in a soft drawl. And that was all. He went back to making felt pen notes, and I to my Saturday paper.

My dad’s loyalty

My father did not like to travel alone and often took me along for company. He could rarely pass a hotel without stopping, and when he did he gave me a dollar to buy soft drinks, chips and chocolate bars to eat while I waited for him. He had a habit of striking up conversations with strangers and so he began to talk to the older man seated near him in the Barry.

It must have been loyalty to me that led my dad to invite Gordie’s dad, Abe Howe, out to the car to meet a skinny 12-year-old. My dad knew that for me hockey was life and that I would discuss no other future. On our way home that evening, as the moon bathed the snow-covered fields in blue light, my father said that I should write a letter to Gordie Howe. I should tell him that I had met his father. I should tell him how much I loved hockey and wanted to play in the NHL.

Letter to Gordie

I wrote the letter and sent it to Gordie Howe, care of the Detroit Olympia. I hoped against hope for an answer but did not really expect one. Then one morning during the Christmas holidays when I was still in bed, my father came home from the post office.

“For you,” he said and he flipped something into the air which landed on my blanket. It was a postcard, a black and white shot of Gordie Howe. He was on the ice, in his dark Red Wings uniform. He must have been doing stops and starts for the camera, because the ice chips sprayed up toward the lens from where he had come to a halt. He was leaning away from the camera, looking at me over his left shoulder. I turned the card over, and there across from my name and address he had written, “Best regards, Gordie Howe.”

I cherished that card but lost it somewhere along the way. I never did make the NHL although I did have a few pretty good years in the Potash League in central Saskatchewan. I had never met my childhood idol, until now.

Flying with Gordie

When the ticket agent called the flight to Edmonton, I was in for a surprise. To get there from Regina,  I had to fly north to Saskatoon, then south to Calgary, only to fly north again to Edmonton. “Dammit,” I said to no one in particular. “I didn’t know I was going to Saskatoon.”

“I didn’t know I was comin’ to Regina,” Gordie said. “I sat on the runway in Chicago for an hour and I watched my plane leave for Calgary without me. Now I’m in Regina and my luggage isn’t.”

I preceded him onto the plane, a small Fokker jet, only to find that we were sitting in the same row, me on the aisle and he scrunched into the window seat. Once we were airborne, Gordie shut out the surrounding noise just as he had in the airport and tended to his own matters.

He pulled out a hardcover book and opened it carefully, his place marked by a thick elastic band wrapped around the cover and the pages he had finished. It was a book about the rise and fall of hockey czar Allan Eagleson, whose career had been riddled with conflicts of interest and practices that cost hockey players millions of dollars.

Gordie read slowly, wearing a pair of gray-rimmed glasses, his thick index finger moving slowly across the page as he parsed each line. Above the sturdy hands his wrists looked the size of juice cans, and seeing them I remembered how he could shoot a hockey puck from either the right or left side with equal force and accuracy.

I noticed, too, that both of his wrists had arthritic lumps on them, each covered by a scar, probably from surgery. It was his painful wrists, not the failure of his legs or lungs, that led to his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings after 25 seasons in the NHL. The wrists must have continued to hurt him during the additional eight seasons he played after coming out of retirement, before he finally quit for good at age 51.


When we put down in Calgary I stood, took Gordie’s coat from the luggage rack, and handed it to him. He looked up and smiled. “Nice to make your acquaintance,” I said, the words sounding formal and banal. In fact, I hadn’t even introduced myself.

“Sure,” he said. “And now if I can just get re-acquainted with my luggage.”


Taking the pledge: The TRC reading challenge

A B.C. writer is challenging Canadians to read the entire report of the Truth and Reconciliation Comission
TRC Commissioners Wilton Littlechild, Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, June 2015

It’s been a year since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report into the history and legacy of Indian residential schools. Yet most of us have probably read little more than snippets of it or none at all. Now, Duncan, B.C.-based writer Jennifer Manuel has created an online campaign asking Canadians to pledge that we’ll read the entire 380-page document. Manuel calls it The TRC Reading Challenge. When she began in April, she hoped to have just 1,000 people sign on, but nearly 3,000 have already done so.

History of the schools

The June 2015 report documents what the TRC heard from 6,700 survivors and witnesses over six years of hearings and research. For more than 130 years, Indian residential schools were organized and largely financed by the government but operated by Canadian churches. An estimated 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes, often forcibly, to attend. They were punished for speaking their languages, lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and — in some cases — sexual abuse.

TRC commissioners Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson have described what happened in the schools as “cultural genocide,” a term that has also been used by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, former Prime Minister Paul Martin and others. As such, the report provides 94 recommendations that challenge Canadians to redeem the past by walking in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Reasons to read the report

Jennifer Manuel says that there are three underlying principles behind her TRC Challenge: that we care about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada; that we believe improving the relationship requires dialogue, which means listening to truths expressed by Indigenous peoples; and that we prefer to read the TRC report yourself rather than relying on others to interpret it for us.

Aboriginal Day and beyond

Manuel wants those who make the pledge to begin their reading by National Aboriginal Day on June 21. On that day, she’ll use the TRC Challenge website to publish the names of those who have made the promise. “Take as long as you need to read it,” she says. “It’s not a race. It’s a commitment.”

She also hopes that anyone taking up the challenge will invite at least one other person to do so: a friend, a local city councillor, MLA, MP, local news reporter or national journalist. She says that invitation can be made in person, on the phone or by doing so publicly using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.

I’m among those who have read only portions of the TRC report. It’s a rich resource, both in its historical detail and in the recommendations it makes for reconciliation. No longer is it possible to say that we don’t know what has happened in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the past 150 years.

Download for free

You can find the TRC report online and download it for free. If you prefer to order and pay for the book, you can do so here.

This piece was published as a United Church Observer blog on June 3, 2016.  

Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Stephen Harper has dropped out of sight. We're waiting to see if he has a passion to contribute anything positive in retirement.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Art Babych photo

Stephen Harper has vanished from sight in the past six months but his Where’s Waldo status may be about to change. Harper will address the Conservative convention in Vancouver late in May.  Recently he also spoke to Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other Republican super donors about how fractured political parties can unite.

In Canada, Harper last spoke publicly on October 19 when he conceded defeat in the 2015 federal election.  He resigned almost immediately as Conservative leader but remains an MP for the riding of Calgary Heritage. He receives a salary of $167,400 but could collect considerably more in pension each year if he resigned his seat. Continue reading Where is Stephen Harper and what will he do now?

Bill C-14, churches one voice among many in debate on assisted dying

Faith groups in Canada are one voice among many in assisted dying debate
Faith groups one voice among many in assisted dying debate

The current debate surrounding Bill C-14 — the legislation regarding medical assistance in dying — is a reminder of how Canada has become a more secular society in which organized religion plays a diminished role in public life.

My own parents, both in their 50s, died within 16 months of one another in the 1970s. During their ordeals in our rural Saskatchewan community, there was never any mention of assistance in dying and no possibility of their choosing such a path even if they had wished it so. We didn’t even have the language to describe it. There had, of course, been suicides in our predominantly Catholic community, and they were considered a grievous sin equivalent to murder. We were told that, ultimately, our lives didn’t belong to us but rather to God, and that it was God who chose when and how those lives would end.

Sue Rodriguez sought assisted suicide

Fifteen years later, such concepts were challenged by Sue Rodriguez, who believed that her life did, indeed, belong to her. She was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and fought to have the legal right to assisted suicide. Her case then went to the Supreme Court, where she argued that a ban on assisted suicide was an infringement of her Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Meanwhile, religious leaders — including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) — appeared as intervenors before the court in opposing Rodriguez. This marked the beginning of an informal alliance between bishops and evangelicals which has continued on other public issues, including legal opposition to same sex marriage.

Rodriguez eventually lost in a 5-4 judgment and, in 1994, she took her own life with the help of an anonymous physician. But fast forward to 2011, when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association went to the Supreme Court on behalf of two other gravely ill women, once again challenging the law against assistance in dying. That time, the court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition was unconstitutional because it breached the same provision of the charter that Rodriguez had challenged more than 20 years earlier. In 2015, the court then instructed parliament to draft new legislation allowing medical assistance in dying in certain limited circumstances — something that’s now being debated.

Civil society on C-14 

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents 83,000 physicians, has come out in support of Bill C-14. The Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Association for Community Living were more cautious, although not opposed to the bill. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which launched the challenge at the Supreme Court, is keenly disappointed that the provisions for medically assisted death are, in its estimation, too restrictive.

Response from faith based organizations

And once more, the most vociferous opposition has come from the Catholic-Evangelical leadership and a number of allied groups. A news conference on Parliament Hill organized by the EFC and Catholic bishops also included representatives from the Canadian Council of Imams, the Salvation Army and a local rabbi.  Curiously, neither the United Church nor the Anglicans, Canada’s largest Protestant denominations, have released an official position on Bill C-14. The Anglicans have set up a task force and the United Church says it is developing a statement.

Religious leaders no longer talk, at least publicly, about our lives belonging to God. They do, however, talk about medical assistance in dying as “intentional killing,” and as being morally and ethically wrong. Catholic leaders warn that their many hospitals will not participate in any such procedures and will not make referrals to other physicians on behalf of terminally ill patients who request it. One wonders how they can do so when most of their funding comes from governments.

A diminished role

Indeed, times have changed. Religious leaders used to meet with the entire federal cabinet. Today, churches and religiously based organizations are merely a few among many mature and competent voices, such as the CMA, debating public policy. The contributions from faith-based organizations are valuable but no longer prescriptive.

This piece appeared in somewhat shorter form on my blog with the United Church Observer on April 28, 2016.

Religion’s role in extremism, conflict and peacebuilding

Gerard Powers says religious actorts do important work in peacebuilding around the world
Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

It is always stimulating to hear someone knowledgeable talk about an issue in a way that leads one to deeper understanding. Gerard Powers did that recently at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University in a speech regarding extremism, conflict and peacebuilding. Powers is the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

“Wars of religion”

Powers made two basic points.  One is that the “war of religions” paradigm is frequently unhelpful and diverts attention away from other causes of conflict such as the role played by the foreign policy of nations, including those of the West. The second point is that religious actors are playing an important role on a daily basis in what Powers called the “peace of religion.” He described those efforts as “unheralded, under-appreciated, and under-analyzed.”

Some of the world’s conflicts, Powers said, certainly do involve religious extremists such as ISIS in the Middle East, but there are often multi-faceted dynamics at work which are not primarily religious in nature.  The rise of ISIS, for example, has included support from former secular Bathists in Iraq who were sidelined when the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, Iraqi Sunni tribes fear the Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments installed by the U.S. even more than they fear ISIS.

Powers said that Catholic and Protestant leaders in the U.S. had warned against military intervention in Iraq but the U.S government did not heed that advice.

“Peace of religion”

Regarding peacebuilding, Powers said, religious leaders and ordinary people motivated by their faith have do important work in conflict zones throughout the world, including Iraq, Syria, Uganda, South Sudan, and Northern Ireland. In many societies religious institutions are ubiquitous and can be present in places and situations where secular and government negotiators fear to tread.

In Colombia, for example, a local priest might travel in “no-go” areas and reach out to rebel leaders as a pastor who tends to both the victims and perpetrators of violence. He might even hear a killer’s confession.

The “track two” or soft power diplomacy provided by religious and other civil society actors, said Powers, supplements what he called the “track one” diplomacy engaged in by politicians and diplomats.

Powers said the “peace of religion” efforts would be even more widespread and effective if a greater number of people in leadership and in the pews understood peacebuilding as integral to their faith and to the vocation of their religious institutions.

Poor diplomacy

Powers added that there is among Western governments a secular bias which ignores religion, wishes it would go away, or that, at the least, it would remain a private activity with no influence in the public square. This lack of sympathy and understanding leads Western countries into foreign diplomacy that supports what they consider “good religion” while at the same time discrediting “bad religion” in foreign countries.

This, Powers said, is a self-serving approach that rarely works and often plays into the narrative of religious extremists such as those in ISIS.


Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Project Ploughshares andf Cesar Jaramillo blow the whistle on Canada's arms deal with Saudi Arabia
Project Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo

In December 2014, the Harper government made a deal to sell $15 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, whose regime likely beheads more people than does ISIS. The Trudeau government now says that a deal is a deal and they cannot overturn it, but a recent Angus Reid poll shows that fewer than one in five Canadians believe that abiding by the deal is a good idea. Continue reading Selling arms to the Saudis, jobs versus human rights

Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak

20 years ago I taught a video production course in Vietnam. I discovered interesting cultural differences between us.
Vietnamese students in 1996 video production course. Dennis Gruending photo

It was 20 years ago, in February 1996, that I went to southern Vietnam on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency. I taught video production to a group of young agrologists at a research institute in the Mekong Delta. They had been using television to provide farmers with information but wanted a refresher on story writing and video techniques. In this piece broadcast on CBC Radio’s Morningside, then hosted by Peter Gzowski, I talk about the video course and some of my students. Continue reading Vietnamese students, they stand when they speak

CMA’s Demand A Plan a winner in 2015 Canadian election

Canadian Medical Association (CMA) President Dr. Cindy Forbes. Photo courtesy CMA.
Canadian Medical Association (CMA) President Dr. Cindy Forbes. Photo courtesy CMA.

I belong to Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery and had access to a rich variety of information circulated during the 2015 federal election campaign. The most impressive advocacy that I saw was the Demand A Plan campaign, which was launched by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and several supporting groups. Now, that campaign has been shortlisted for an international prize in the annual Reed Awards, which will take place in Charleston, S.C. on Feb. 18.

Multi-media campaign

The Demand A Plan alliance last year waged a multi-media advocacy campaign, calling for a national seniors’ strategy. According to the CMA, more than 30,000 Canadians used the campaign’s website and sent roughly 25,000 letters to candidates across the country, asking where they stand on seniors’ issues. The campaign website also provided a “promise tracker” tool, which allowed visitors to compare the policy statements of different political parties.

Medicare must adapt

Although it was created more than 50 years ago, when the average age was much younger, medicare has not adapted well to serve the growing number of elderly Canadians. By 2036, people aged 65 and over will make up a quarter of the population and account for 62 percent of health costs.

The alliance says that it supports universal public health care but fears the system won’t survive unless seniors’ care is redesigned. For example, the group says that it takes nine months to get a hip replacement in Canada because hospital beds are crowded with seniors — many of them suffering from dementia and other chronic diseases without long-term care and home-care support. Interestingly, the group says that caring for someone in a hospital costs $1,000 a day, compared to $130 a day in long-term care and $55 a day at home.

Dr. Cindy Forbes: “momentum”

“We cannot lose momentum as we continue to push for federal leadership in the development of a national seniors’ strategy,” CMA President Dr. Cindy Forbes says, adding that the alliance has documented the Liberal Party’s election promises as they relate to seniors’ care (Those, too, are published on the website). They include negotiating a new Health Accord with the provinces and territories; investing $3 billion over the next four years to deliver more and better home-care services for all Canadians, including access to high-quality, in-home caregivers, financial support for family care, and, when necessary, palliative care; and investing in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities.

This spring, the CMA and its alliance partners want the Trudeau government to convene a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers to discuss seniors’ care. They also want to see a national seniors’ strategy in place by 2019.

No mention of pharmacare

Unfortunately, there is no mention in either in Demand A Plan or in the Liberal government’s promises, of a national pharmacare plan. Pharmaceuticals are the fastest growing component in health care costs and the need for such a plan is urgent.

They’ve come a long way

Still, there is no doubt that Canada’s doctors have come a long way since the CMA strenuously opposed the introduction of Medicare in Saskatchewan in 1962, and just as adamantly opposed recommendations for a similar national program by the Hall Commission in 1964.

A version of this piece ran in the United Church Observer on February 18, 2016.