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'Howe' Do You Play a Legend? Mr. Hockey Stars In Awe of Sports Hero

When Kathleen Robertson's agent pitched her with a new project, a TV movie called Mr. Hockey, they asked, first off, if she was familiar with a guy named Gordie Howe. Replied Robertson: "Yessss, I'm Canadian. Of course I know who Gordie Howe is!"

It doesn't matter that Robertson, 39, is too young to have watched Howe win any of his four Stanley Cups, growing up in front of her TV set in Hamilton. A hockey legend is a Canadian legend. And legends? Well, they're hard to live up to. Or portray in a CBC special.

Robertson (Boss, Beverly Hills, 90210) plays the late Colleen Howe, Gordie's wife and agent, in Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, premiering on CBC Sunday, April 28. The biopic skips past the player's 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings to his joining the Houston Aeros at age 45, where he played with his two young sons.

Michael Shanks (Saving Hope, Stargate SG-1) plays Mr. Hockey himself. "I tried not to let any intimidation or fear of screwing up get in the way," says the Vancouver actor. But living up to Howe's living legend was always a challenge. And that was never truer than when he was on the ice.

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The cast of Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story with director Andy Mikita (centre). -- CBC

Generations have grown up wanting to play like Gordie Howe. In his own youth, Shanks pursued a pro hockey career: he played through college, first for the team in his native Kamloops then later at UBC. In Vancouver, he plays in a rec league like so many other people - albeit against other film and TV types. He and Mr. Hockey's director Andy Mikita both joined the same "Stargate Team" - they both worked on the B.C.-shot sci-fi show - which is how he was scouted for the film. Mikita wanted a Gordie who could do his own stunts. Or at least his own skating. "Playing pick-up, I was a bit belligerent and - a bit of a dick. And he sort of saw that as the Gordie attitude he was looking for in this," says Shanks.

"I made sure I got back out on the ice, and was busting my butt to get back into skating form of some kind," says the 42-year-old star, who hit the ice for months in preparation, also adopting Howe's hair, his voice, his "Chiclet-y smile" to better portray the athlete. He changed his skating style. ("At that time period they skated in a more upright manner than they do now," Shanks explains.) He trained himself to shoot with both hands; Howe is famously ambidextrous.

"I mean, I was never going to be as good as Gordie was. Let's face it, there was a reason he was so awesome. I was grateful it was Gordie when he was 45, not 25," he laughs.

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Michael Shanks in character as Gordie Howe. -- CBC

Still, hockey players are, by definition, competitive. Even if Shanks can make peace with not being Mr. Hockey in real life, could his co-stars do the same?

"We were playing hockey with a number of guys who are ex-pros and college players," Shanks says of the game scenes. "We're setting up these plays where Gordie's supposed to score. Nobody likes the idea that they're the one who has to be the pylon that you go around, so there's a little bit of competitiveness there.

"When I'm coming on the ice, and I'm playing Gordie Howe, there's a little bit of eyebrow raising going on. Is he going to be any good? Is he one of those actors who can't really skate?"

Good sportsmanship, thankfully, prevailed. The crew got on so well they were constantly on the ice together, never mind shooting days that would keep them in skates for 12 hours straight - or the nerve damage Shanks did to his feet on Mr. Hockey's first day.

"Here we are, busting our butts, skating all these scenes, and complaining 'Oh, that was exhausting!' and then for fun we'd go over and skate and pass and shoot in the other rink."

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The family that plays together, stays together. A scene from Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story. -- CBC

But there's more to Mr. Hockey than the game. It's a movie about family, as much as a moment in sports history. When Howe came out of retirement in 1973, it was to join the same team as his two young sons, Marty and Mark. They were the first father/son combo in hockey. Family matriarch, Colleen Howe, brokered the deal. That confluence of events, and the way they personally affected everyone involved, is where the real action happens in this TV biopic.

Marty and Mark Howe were involved in the development of the script, Robertson says, and met with the actors who play them, Dylan Playfair and Andrew Herr. "I think that was huge for them, to be able to actually get on the phone and talk to them."

She and Shanks, however, didn't have contact with the family, instead poring over books and old footage. "Thank God for the Internet," jokes Shanks.

"I know that Marty and Mark were happy with the way their mom was portrayed in the script, so that made me happy," says Robertson.

Being free to interpret the role on his own was ultimately helpful, says Shanks. "The more I thought about it, I didn't want to put more pressure on myself than was already there, having to live up to somebody else's idea of who he was."

And his estimation of Gordie Howe has only grown. "I knew his significance to other people, but I really started having a lot of admiration for him the more I found out," Shanks says. "Just understanding more about what he went through, and a greater understanding of what it would be like as an adult to come back and play professional sport at the age of 45. My appreciation grew the more I did my homework on it."

"The reward at the end of the day, for us, was making the movie," says Shanks. "And now that it's going to be coming out, we hope that everybody can enjoy and appreciate it, and is informed a little about a legend like Gordie Howe."

Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story airs on CBC Sunday, April 28.

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PHOTOS: Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story
WATCH: First look at Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story