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"Mr. Hockey" Gordie Howe had a surprising role in the growth of Michigan hockey

Gordie Howe's Hockey Card at age 43.
Trish Thornton

You don’t have to know much about hockey to know about Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. 

This week, we learned his family is “expecting the worst.”  With his days numbered, you’ll be reading a lot about Howe’s hockey heroics.  He set just about every NHL scoring record, and a dozen still stand.  One of the most impressive: he finished in the top five for scoring for two straight decades.

He played in the NHL at 18, and at 51. 

Howe’s heyday paralleled his team’s, and his town’s.

The Wings were a dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups, and nine regular season titles.  No team symbolized the Motor City’s might like the Red Wings. 

With Howe leading the Red Wings, rinks and little leagues sprouted all over Detroit.  Howe’s wife Colleen started the junior Red Wings, which produced hundreds of world-class players, including their sons, Mark and Marty.  Mark starred for the Red Wings, too, and is a Hall of Famer himself. 

But I never fully appreciated Gordie Howe’s power until I researched my first book, on Michigan hockey.  I learned just a few nudges from Howe helped Michigan’s hockey program rise to the top – and stay there.

Gordie Howe was one of nine kids born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sasketchewan – a town so tiny, it’s not even on the atlas index.  When he joined the Red Wings, the entire province pulled for him.

 Red Berenson, coaches the University of Michigan's hockey team.
Credit MGoBlog / Flickr
Gordie Howe's friend, Red Berenson, coaches the University of Michigan's hockey team.

That included Red Berenson and his teammates in Regina, the capital.

During his senior year, Berenson and his buddies trotted down to the only library in town to search for the school that had the best combination of academics and hockey.

Berenson quickly concluded Michigan was the place, and his friends followed.

But they had a third reason.

When they looked up Michigan in the atlas, they found Ann Arbor was a mere 38 miles from Detroit. 

From 1958 to 1964, 14 players made the trek from Saskatchewan to Ann Arbor.

“I’d never heard of the University of Michigan,” Berenson’s teammate Joe Lunghammer confessed, “but I’d heard of Gordie Howe, and I figured, if he plays that close to Ann Arbor, we can go see him play.  And that’s how I picked Michigan.”

From 1958 to 1964, 14 players made the trek from Saskatchewan to Ann Arbor.  The group would lead the squad to the NCAA title in 1964 – Michigan’s first title in eight years. 

Berenson embarked on a 17-year NHL career before returning to his alma mater in 1984, to take over a troubled program.  Howe had become a good friend by then, and proved it when Berenson ran into him at Toronto’s airport while Berenson was recruiting his first blue chipper, Myles O’Connor.   Howe took them into the Air Canada lounge, and gushed about Berenson and Michigan hockey for three hours to close the deal. 

O’Connor became an All-American, the team rose from the ashes, and the Wolverines went to the NCAA tournament for a record 22 seasons.

But it all started decades earlier, with a bunch of Canadian high school kids who wanted to go to a good college, play serious hockey – and watch Gordie Howe lead the Red Wings down the road.

That’s how powerful Mr. Hockey was.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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