To some it seems more than coincidental that we should learn of Gordie Howe’s passing on a day the world was honoring and remembering Muhammad Ali.
Two figures of historic levels, they each were to be found at the top of their chosen athletic endeavors. And, they each impacted millions far beyond the sport.
But very different were these two – both in style and in what they meant to us they leave behind.
Countless words have been written and uttered of Ali. We have heard of his tenacity, his prowess, his humor and playfulness, his humanity, as well as his bravado, brashness, defiance and swagger (especially in his earlier boxing years). It is clear that in the period of change from Clay to Ali, we are all were changed too. Muhammad Ali in a sometimes not so quiet way made us look honestly at who we were, who we thought we were and what we might become. We all might not have realized at the time that Ali was a proxy for what America was all about. He withstood and overcame the challenges of his life and of his time – whether of decisions he made, imposed by a society in turmoil beyond or beyond any us. To some of us, our greatest admiration of Ali came from the stoic example and courage he displayed when he could not no speak. He taught by example especially when the words stopped.
In contrast, the narrative of Gordie Howe was quite different in tone and in style.
Considered by many (even Orr and Gretzky) the greatest to play the game, Howe was not one to proclaim himself with a title. That was not his style.
On the ice, he could be a tough competitor – high stick, elbow were part of the repertoire. One had better keep their head up and eyes open. Today an old Hockey Illustrated, circa 1964, comes to mind. It chronicled the bruises, breaks and stitches of Gordie Howe. There was not much empty space in the graphic – reflecting the hundreds of stitches, the fractured scull, 14 broken noses and more. It was a reminder of what the game and Gordie Howe could be.
Off the ice, he was an icon – a throwback, a reminder of not just hockey’s golden era, but also of what some describe as its code of modesty.
Both Ali and Howe are all-time legends based on the first half of their lives – their achievements in the sports arena. But it is how they lived their second half of their lives that made both extraordinary.
Both were great. But they were different. The notion of “The Greatest of All Time” came from Ali himself (along with the likes of Angelo Dundee and Howard Cosell).
Notwithstanding the case to be made for Gretzky, Orr and the Rocket many consider to be the greatest hockey player of all time. It is an appropriate description – along with Number 9, and “Mr. Hockey”. All are names that came from us, not him. That was not him. He would not allow it. He did his talking on the ice. In all, so very human, so very Canadian.
Indeed, in greatness comes in different ways.