By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (Nov. 10, 2014) — Before Wayne Gretzky thrilled the masses with his out-of-this world hockey skills, Gordie Howe was “Mr. Hockey,” a beloved figure throughout Canada and beyond. Howe’s tough-guy demeanor, ability to put the puck in the net, deliver a bone-rattling check — and take a hit — and lead his team to Stanley Cup titles were all legendary exploits during his quarter century in a Detroit Red Wings sweater.

And as far back as I can remember, I recall my Uncle Jack telling hockey tales, and Howe’s name was always a part of those stories.

How couldn’t it have been?

Gordie Howe is 86 now and recovering from a recent stroke. Despite his advancing age, his ties to the current Red Wings remain as strong as ever. To this day, he likes to dish out advice to players, telling them to “shoot the puck,” Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg told The New York Times last week, adding, “If you don’t shoot, you can’t score.”

That, of course, sounds like Howe. He was always a bona fide competitor, and didn’t retire until he was in his early 50s.

As the news headlines detail Howe’s health issues, including dementia, I’m reminded of the first hockey game I attended in person, a special treat a few weeks before my 8th birthday. It was a charity event called Masters of Hockey, established by the Phil Esposito Foundation, held at Madison Square Garden in March 1982, on a Sunday. Details of game day are sketchy. I remember carrying around some souvenirs, including a game program, eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate, as well as munching on a Blimpie sub. (Was that tasty sandwich scarfed down before or after the game? I can’t recall. But I remember being so excited, wanting to talk about the game to classmates the next day.)

But I do remember that Uncle Jack was happy to watch many of his older favorite players, including, as online research confirms, Esposito, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and … Gordie Howe skate, pass the puck, take shots and attempt to relive their glory years in the NHL. Sitting beside him and I were my cousins Paul and Craig at MSG. And as the action unfolded before our eyes, and the players skated close to our section of the famous arena, Uncle Jack reminded us to chant “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie!” when he was visible. It was a chant that could’ve been shouted in the years just after World War II in Motown, but was still fun for fans to scream on this upbeat Sunday night in Manhattan.

And so we chanted “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie!” with all our might.

We weren’t the only ones.