They used to call Gordie Howe Power.
It was a nickname built on his ferocious strength. Sometimes Gordie would grasp a door knob while someone on the other side was about to pull the door open.
No matter how hard the person on the other side would pull, no force on earth could overcome Gordie Howe.
Except, of course, for time.
When one of the greatest players in hockey, one of the greatest men in hockey, stepped onto a red carpet to drop a puck Tuesday he had to be steadied and directed a bit. Not even Gordie Howe, slowed by the early effects of dementia, beats time.
That two alumni games between different sets of Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings was played on New Year’s Eve spoke a little about the occasion.
It was, like all reunions, at turns joyful and sad. It was about the people who made it, the Wendel Clarks and Darryl Sittlers and the Steve Yzermans and the Nicklas Lidstroms.
And it was about the people who couldn’t. There was no final hand for Bob Probert, loved unconditionally in Detroit; no mention of Brad McCrimmon who played three seasons in Detroit and was killed in a plane crash plying his new trade as a hockey coach in Russia, no word on Pat Burns, the architect of the Leafs most famous upset of Detroit in 1993.
There is no more telling toast on New Year’s Eve than when people raise their glasses to absent friends and it took a game with a score no one will remember to remind people of the irresistible pull the game has on the people who hold it and the people it holds.
With each minute, the game became less exhibition and more flashback. Bryan McCabe scored with two seconds left to tie the contest and send it into a shootout.
It takes a tremendous effort to strip the artifice from an NHL game but when there is nothing but cold and ice, 40 willing players and an unlimited number of pucks, you can get a little magic.
“It was great for me,” said Pat Quinn, returned to the Leafs bench after seven long years away. “It’s like a rebirth. When you’re a kid, you don’t want to go on to the ice, it’s so cold and then you never want to come off. You spend your whole life and where do you end up…back on the ice again.”
Or as Tiger Williams, as hairless and homely at 60 as he was at 24 put it: “Guys don’t forget what they’re good at.”
In the Leafs’ dressing room, Mike Palmateer, wearing exactly the same equipment he last used in 1984 – literally, half a lifetime ago – beamed as he was photographed with his family.
An oldtimer game is to laugh at age knowing it will eventually laugh at you. And it is a chance, even for a moment, to burn just as brightly as time will allow.
Gary Roberts, who dedicated himself with an uncompromising passion to play until he was 42, was asked, four years after his last NHL game, if he missed it.
Roberts won a Stanley Cup in Calgary with his hero Lanny McDonald. Both wore number seven. The night before the game Roberts visited with the McCrimmon family. These were men who shaped him.
The gentle old man who dropped the puck to start the game leaves and left an incalculable legacy. There is nothing but cold and ice, an unlimited number of pucks and a very, very finite amount of time.
“People ask me every day if I miss the game,” Gary Roberts said. “And I tell them, every day, every day I miss it.”