We define ourselves by where we’re from. Where we are at the moment isn’t as important. And I was from Detroit.

We moved to Canada when I was six years old. When we arrived and I discovered hockey and had to choose a favorite team, it was no contest. The other kids came to school in jerseys emblazoned with the logos of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. But I was from Detroit, so I was a Red Wings fan. And Gordie Howe, their big star, became my hero. 

He was my hero a long time. Years later, after I’d grown up, I wrote a poem making the point that so long as Gordie Howe played hockey, I was still a boy. It began, “One by one my heroes put on ties, / who once I was when I bestrode / a bicycle in stained PFs. . . ”  PF Flyers were the Chuck Taylors of the day. The bicycle was a one-speed. I outgrew them. But I didn’t outgrow Gordie Howe.

Finally he retired. But then he came out of retirement to play a few more years with his sons, and he made me young again. But then he retired a second time. And the other day, at the age of 88, he died.

Gordie Howe was the reason I might have gotten a little peevish a few years ago defending hockey against the charge it’s mainly “for the white and affluent.” He grew up a mechanic’s son in a huge family, playing hockey in skates the wrong size, on frozen Saskatchewan ponds, and he was dyslexic and flunked third grade twice. There was never much food on the table and doctors prescribed vitamins to build his bones up. You don’t grow up white in these circumstances. You grow up hungry and relentless. 

I always wanted to believe that Howe was the best player ever. But Rocket Richard, back in the day, scored 50 goals in 50 games, and the best Howe could do was 49 in 70. So I was never sure. But Wayne Gretzky says Howe was and that’s good enough for me.

I was just looking for that poem and couldn’t find it. I hope it’s around. But the stained PFs are long gone.