The Night I Thought Gordie Howe Would Die

Cobo_arena_interior_medium
Cobo Arena in Downtown Detroit. You can see the wall on the left side of the photo. The working pressbox is on the right hand side, below the yellow seats

In 1995, I worked for a team called the Motor City Mustangs. They were a roller hockey team that played during the summer at Cobo Arena downtown. Shockingly the team only existed for one season. Apparently people didn't want to sit indoors on a beautiful day at a grungy, 35-year-old arena with the appeal of a high-school auditorium watching a winter sport played on some plastic court. Who knew?

My job was "Press Box Manager." This sounds like a very dramatic job. It would've been had we had anyone to sit in the press box. Yes, there was a radio deal (Mike Stone actually called our games on WDFN), but other than Stoney and whomever did commentary (I can't remember), it was rare that we had anyone else in the press box. I, however, was always prepared: I created these 18x24 wipe-off boards to keep track of goals and penalties and shots. I had pencils and notepads and all sorts of other stuff just in case we actually had someone show up. When ESPN2 stopped by for their one and only visit, I worked as a stat guy on their crew with these 18x24 boards. They weren't nearly as appreciative as I thought they should be. In retrospect, the phrase "overzealous" comes to mind.

The most legendary name on the Mustangs was their coach: Mark Howe, son of Gordie. The Mustangs even drafted Gordie, though he didn't sign (another shock, I know). But with Mark behind the bench, Gordie would often show up for games, sitting in the press box on the opposite side of the arena, always alone.

For those who have never seen Cobo Arena, there's seating on only three sides of the area. The fourth side (against the Detroit River) has a wall. This makes it great for concerts, but kind of awkward for sporting events.

One game, I went up to the press box level 90 minutes before the game to set up when I found something.

Gordie Howe.

"Good evening, Mr. Howe," I said to him. He seemed startled to see me.

"Hi." He looked around for a moment. "I think I'm in the wrong press box."

"Well," I said, "this is the working press box."

"Oh. Then I'm definitely in the wrong one. I'm supposed to be over there." And he pointed to where he usually sits.

"Well, let me see what I can do," I told him.

The working press box was on the other side of the arena from the locker rooms and offices, so it would've taken me forever to get back down there to ask. But there was an usher/security person who stopped fans from getting up to the press level (to be honest, they were also there to stop fans from getting to the third level, since we never had enough fans to open that level).

"Gordie Howe's up in the press box, but he's supposed to be on the other side."

"You can take him around to the other side of the arena on the wall side."

This confused me. "The wall side?"

"Yeah. Go get him and I'll let you in."

I accepted the offer and went back up to get Mr. Howe.

(To be clear: I was simply being a staff member helping the dad of the coach here. Do not interpret this as Mr. Howe being unable to do anything for himself.)

"The usher's going to let us in to the wall side of the arena and we'll head over to your side," I told him.

He was game. We walked out of the press box, where the usher opened a nondescript door.

It was dark. No, scratch that: it was black.

We stepped in, and the usher closed the door.

As our eyes adjusted, Mr. Howe made a left and started walking.

Now this corridor was clearly never used for anything but storage. The only light in the room, I discovered, was from these glass panels that aren't really visible when you're in the arena, but provided just a little ambient light from the arena itself. That light showed that there was a bunch of crap in this place. It was not neatly kept. And I was escorting a 67-year-old man through there.

I grabbed for anything, my arms flailing in front of me to try to avoid stumbling into anything. I couldn't see him. All I knew was that I could hear two sets of footsteps, which meant there was two of us.

And then he hit a chair. I heard an absolutely clear obscenity from him.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he replied.

And at that moment, I realized that he was as blindly wandering through this as I was.

"You want some help?"

"No, I'm okay."

Then he hit something else. Another obscenity. And now he's hot at the situation he's in.

And I thought, "Gordie Howe is gonna hit something, fall awkwardly, hit his head, and I'm the only person around."

The next thought: "This is beyond absurd."

And then I wanted to laugh. At that moment, one part of my brain was afraid of what might happen. The other found this absolutely hilarious.

It felt like I was on an epic march. There was no way to gauge how much further to go. He kept stepping into things, and was now just cursing up a storm. And with each audible word, with each collision, I am afraid I am going to burst our in laughter, which would cause him to turn around, find me, and beat me senseless. And I'm running into things and not making a sound. I could've stepped on a rake Sideshow Bob-style and not even flinched.

If Gordie Howe could walk through this corridor, I surely could.

Still going through this corridor, we finally see the outline of light surrounding a door. He reaches for the door and opens it. We've somehow miraculously made it through to the other side of the arena.

With the new light, I'm able to quickly scurry towards it. Now we had to figure out how to get to the press box from the door.

"I think we go down that ramp," I said, "since we came up a ramp to get to the other side."

Sure enough, at the bottom of the ramp was a curtained-off area, and behind that curtain was the press box.

"Thanks for the help," he said.

"You're welcome, Mr. Howe," I replied. I headed back down, past the usher doing the same job as the other usher, and down the seating bowl to the floor. I made the turn towards the seating bowl. My coworker Debbie was in the office, doing last-minute prep work.

"I just took Gordie Howe through the walls of Cobo Arena," I told her.

She looked up. "You did what?"

"Gordie" (you'll note that we're now on a first-name basis) "was over in the press box, and the usher showed me how to cut through the river-side wall of the arena."

"There's a passageway back there?"

"Yeah. And I don't think anyone's cleaned it out since the Seger show in 75."

She sighed. "The things you learn."

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