Gordie Howe was peeved. Not his on-ice, elbows up, provoked by an opponent peeved. Mr. Hockey was more annoyed.
He was annoyed with Harry Neale, his coach and nine years Howe's junior, with the 1977-78 Hartford Whalers of the old WHA days.
The previous afternoon after practice, Neale put the word out to Whalers captain Rick Ley that the coach actually was going to enforce the midnight curfew that evening. There would be a bed check at the hotel.
Neale began his tour at the end of the hall. The first door he stepped in front of was Howe's. Neale was uncomfortable checking up on the Hockey Hall of Famer.
"I could see his light was on underneath the door. I thought to myself, 'I can't check Gordie Howe," Neale said.
So he decided not to knock and moved down the hall. The next morning, in the hotel lobby, Howe approached Neale.
"I usually go to bed at 11:30, but I waited up because you said you were going to check for curfew," he said. "Next time, I want to be treated like the rest of the guys."
Just a glimpse
It just one of the many stories Neale can recall from that season years ago. Many stories. Neale will never forget Howe's kindness, his sense of humour, his love for his family and his desire to fit in despite his place in hockey history.
Those traits will be evident in the movie, Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, which will be shown on CBC on Sunday at 8 p.m. local time. The movie deals with Howe's return to the game at age 45 to play with his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros.
Neale coached Gordie, Mark and Marty for a season a few years later. The elder Howe, now 85, turned 50 late in that season under Neale. But Howe still managed to lead the Whalers in scoring with 34 goals and 96 points in 76 games. He checked in with five more goals and 10 points in New England's playoff run to the Avco Cup final, in which the Winnipeg Jets swept the Whalers in four games.
"He was such a team-oriented guy," Neale said. "I learned how dedicated and determined he was, and how much he loved the game.
"A lot of players had equal ability. But the difference was that nobody loved to play the game more than Gordie."
One of the first times Neale and Howe chatted that season, the coach remembered telling the Hall of Famer that he grew up in Hamilton idolizing Howe.
"When I played in our driveway, I always pretended I was you," Neale told Howe.
"Did I ever score?" Howe joked.
Neale has as quick a wit as anybody. When Neale was a Hockey Night In Canada analyst, he had a good chuckle in Detroit in a game that Howe was in attendance.
CBC's Scott Oake interviewed Howe during the game and asked the legend if Neale was a good coach.
"He was my second favourite coach," Howe replied. "Everyone else was tied for first."
Gordie, not Dad
As mentioned above, Howe simply wanted to fit in on the Whalers. He told his sons that while around the team and on the ice, he wanted Mark and Marty to call him Gordie, not Dad.
But one night in Quebec City, Gordie had the puck as a wide-open Mark streaked down the wing. The Nordiques defender checking Mark had fallen down.
"Mark got so excited he yelled 'Dad'," Neale recalled. "I remember [veterans] Dave Keon and John McKenzie sitting on the bench in front of me saying, 'Did you hear that? Gordie's not going to be happy.'"
Even at age 50, Howe still was the toughest and meanest on the ice. But he always preached not to seek immediate revenge. He told his younger teammates that there would be a moment for retaliation in the next game or the next year that would present itself.
Late that season, the Whalers concluded the home portion of their regular-season schedule up Interstate 91 in Springfield because the roof collapsed at the old Hartford Civic Center.
Before the final two games, Neale told his team that he wanted goalies Al Smith and Jean-Louis Levasseur to finish the season with the lowest goals-against average in the league. In order to do that, Neale challenged his team not to surrender more than two goals a game.
In the first outing against the Cincinnati Stingers, the game progressed well. But then with 5:01 remaining in the game, there was an incident.
"From the bench, I couldn't see down into corners along our side," Neale said. "All of sudden, the crowd groaned.
"Something had happened in the corner. Gordie had cut [Stingers forward] Robbie Ftorek."
It was revenge for an incident earlier in the season, when Ftorek clipped Marty in the cheekbone. The older Howe vowed to get even.
The Whalers killed off the five-minute major to Gordie to preserve the team's low goals-against average that Smith and Levasseur would eventually win.
It was a selfish play, but it also was a father sticking up for his son.
Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story
Broadcast on CBC on Sunday at 8 p.m. local (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador)
The film deals with Gordie Howe's return to hockey at age 45 to play with sons, Mark and Marty, for the Houston Aeros of the old WHA in 1973-74.
Gordie Howe: Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1, Saving Hope)
Colleen Howe: Kathleen Robertson (Boss, 90210)
Mark Howe: Andy Herr (Tide Waters)
Marty Howe: Dylan Playfair (former BCHLer for Merritt Centennials, son of Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Jim Playfair)
Bobby Hull: Lochlyn Munro (Charmed, 21 Jump Street)
Cathy Howe: Emma Grabinsky (Knockout)
Murray Howe: Graham Mayes (The Plague)
Aeros coach Bill Dineen: Martin Cummings (Poltergeist)
Hockey consultant on film: Billy Keene (Winnipeg South Blues assistant coach and runs Keane Hockey Programs in Winnipeg area)
Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC
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