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When Mr. Hockey visited Bishop’s Falls

Gordie Howe right playfully showed Shawn Faulkner the pointy end of his elbow.
Gordie Howe right playfully showed Shawn Faulkner the pointy end of his elbow. - Contributed

Gander’s Andrew Mercer remembers the buzz. 

Gordie Howe right playfully showed Shawn Faulkner the pointy end of his elbow.
Gordie Howe right playfully showed Shawn Faulkner the pointy end of his elbow.

It was looking to be just another day at the Beothuk Family Park in Grand Falls-Windsor for the then 10-year-old at the end of June in 2009. 

School had just let out for the summer and he was looking forward to a day of playing around the park with his buddies. His father had a trailer — he still does — in the park for the summer. 

Perhaps, they thought, they’d head down to the area where the hockey nets were stored and slap around a hockey ball for an hour or two. 

Then the day got turned on its ear. Word circulated around the park that Gordie Howe was heading their way. 

Yes, Mr. Hockey himself was visiting the park with his friend Alex Faulkner. The two were former teammates with the Detroit Red Wings from 1962-1964. 

Faulkner owned the park and today, at the age of 83, still opens the park every morning. In 2009 felt he’d give the people there a treat. 

Mercer, now 20, played hockey growing up and knew the legend and reputation of Howe. Still, he never expected to see him on a summer day in Grand Falls-Windsor. 

“I remember everybody got super star struck when they saw him,” he said reflecting on the memory. 

Mercer and a few of the other children in the park were in the midst of their road hockey game when Howe dropped by. 

Just getting the chance to meet Howe was a thrill for the people in the park, especially the kids.  

No one expected him to grab one the sticks lying on the ground and join the game, but that is what he did. 

For a short time, Howe was one of them. He integrated himself flawlessly into the contest, helped players with their grips and even delivered one of his trademark elbows, albeit playfully and not like the one he gave Phil Esposito in Esposito’s rookie season. 

Shannon Ivey was just six-years-old when she got the chance to see Howe up close and personal in her hometown of Grand Falls-Windsor that day. 

Now 17, Ivey remembers being in awe as Howe ever so briefly jumped into their game, stick in hand. 

“(Howe) was so nice, generous and humble,” she said. “He spent lots of time getting pictures taken with everyone.” 

Howe was her father's favourite player, and he scored a hockey card signed by the legend. 

The only part of the day that surprised Faulkner was that Howe grabbed the stick and played. Howe had the special ability to make everyone around him feel like stars. 

“It is not every day that people with his notoriety would be the type of person that he is,” said Faulkner of that day. “(Howe) played ball hockey with the kids up in the park like he was one of them. 

“He was a fantastic human being.” 

Faulkner, himself, spent his time during this session as a spectator.  

He didn’t play, but wouldn’t that have been something? 

A special time 

Howe was in town as a special guest of Bishop’s Falls for its 2009 Centennial celebrations, to  speak at a dinner in Bishop’s Falls honouring the town’s members in the Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Fame. 

Faulkner helped make that happen. He was asked to reach out to Howe, given their past relationship as teammates. Once Howe committed, centennial chairman George Saunders took care of the logistics. 

That included a reception at the Pat O’Reilly Memorial Arena in the community with the National Hockey League legend and Hall of Famer.  

Later in the week, Howe held court in a question and answer session with local minor hockey players. He wasn’t much of a speech maker, according to Faulkner. In lieu of a formal speech, Howe answered a barrage of questions from the players. 

During a stop at a street hockey game in the Boethuck Family Park, Gordie Howe took some time to talk shop with this youngster.
During a stop at a street hockey game in the Boethuck Family Park, Gordie Howe took some time to talk shop with this youngster.

That is when one boy from the audience asked him how he had come to be known as Mr. Hockey. 

“(Howe’s) wife named him Mr. Hockey and when the little fella asked him that, he cried,” said Faulkner. “It reminded him of his wife who had passed away ... that upset him and why wouldn’t it? 

“He lost his best buddy.” 

The trip was a short time after his wife Colleen died from Pick’s disease. 

Visiting 

The campgrounds wasn’t the only place that Faulkner and Saunders took Howe. He also brought him to visit his brother Lester ‘Lindy’ Faulkner, provincial hockey hall of famer Ron Healey and cancer survivor Ron Gray. Howe also visited some sick children. 

Healey was a referee in the old Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association. When they visited his home, Howe joked how he didn’t much like officials in his playing days.  

He had finished his hockey career over 1,600 minutes in penalties. Without hesitation, Healey told Howe that he deserved them too. 

“Ron was always known for his wit and humour,” said Saunders. 

There is a beer bottle in the rec room of Ron Gray’s Grand Falls-Windsor home. Its nothing out of the ordinary save for a logo of the Detroit Red Wings on the label and a signature from one of the game’s greats. 

“Gordie told me he’d never signed a beer bottle before and then he did,” said the 69-year-old Gray. 

It was just two years after Gray was diagnosed with cancer when Howe spent an hour with him in the summer of 2009. A huge Red Wing fan because of Faulkner’s ties to the club, Gray thought he was having a joke pulled on him when he was told of Mr. Hockey’s imminent arrival at his home. 

“It certainly lifted my spirits when he came to visit me,” he said. “We didn’t know which way the cancer was going to go and it certainly helped. 

“I’ve told that story many times since then. I’m still telling it.” 

Howe’s stay lasted only a couple of days. He was out of town as quickly as he had arrived. 

Howe died in 2016 at the age of 88.  But his visit to Grand Falls-Windsor left a lasting impression.

There was a buzz from one end of town to the other, according to Saunders. He spent time at a hunting lodge catching trout, had dinner with some locals couples and shock just about every hand in town. 

“When (Howe) shook your hand, his hand was the size of a baseball glove," said Saunders. 

When he speaks of Howe, it is easy to hear the joy emanating from Saunders voice. It is an experience is isn’t sure to forget and one he was glad to be a part of. 

“He made an impact across town,” said Saunders. “He was a very grounded individual and he was like a longtime friend that was a away for a time and came back.” 

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