Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lunch with Gordie

If my Twitter feed was any indication, every single sports reporter who was working in the 1960s through 1980s did some sort of story with Muhammad Ali. There were all sorts of accounts of encounters with The Greatest Of All Time bouncing around after Ali's death.

Except from me. I missed out. I think the only time Ali and I were in the same building was when Don King promoted a boxing card at Memorial Auditorium, and Ali showed up.

But as for Gordie Howe, who died last week, well, that was another story. I had a regular lunch date with Gordie once a year for a few years. That deserves a bit of an explanation.

The Sabres used to have a media luncheon once a month during the hockey season in the mid-1980s. It was a chance to have steak for lunch on the team, and talk to team management. Once a year, Howe would come in to town to promote the Emery Edge Award, which went to the plus-minus award winner.

I'm not even sure what the company did, and why it sponsored an NHL award, but no one really cared. Howe turned up, had a nice lunch, and told stories about hockey. It must have been a nice way to make a few dollars. I know I sure enjoyed his visits, and everyone else did too.

My best memory of Howe came at one of those sessions. Gordie had just finished lunch when he went to get a pitcher of water for a refill. After filling up his own glass, he asked the group if anyone else wanted water. A few said yes, and Howe started refilling glasses.

At that point, Sabres' public relations director Gerry Helper got up to start the more formal part of the ceremony. He thanked everyone for coming and then said: "Let me introduce a few people to start. First is your waiter, Gordie Howe." Everyone laughed hard, including Gordie.

I covered Gordie's last game in Buffalo, on March 6, 1980 (it was Bobby Hull's last game in Buffalo as well, as he was a Whaler then), and I probably stuck a microphone in Howe's face after the game. It struck me that it was like interviewing my father, since he was 52.

The lunches were better. Let me assure you from personal experience that Gordie Howe really was as nice as everyone has said he was. I've got an autographed copy of his autobiography on my bookshelf, and it's not going anywhere.

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