The passing of 88-year-old NHL and WHA legend Gordie Howe Friday morning has sparked plenty of tributes across the sports world, but one of the most notable on the media side came from Keith Olbermann Wednesday. Olbermann wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on what Howe meant to him and many others, centered around how Howe “beat him up” 20 years ago for one of ESPN’s “This Is SportsCenter” commercials but still signed photos for him, as he did for almost everyone he met. First, here’s the commercial:
That’s pretty good, showing off both Howe’s legendary toughness and a much-more-fun, self-aware version of older athletes talking about how things used to be than the self-absorbed one we often get today. Here’s what Olbermann wrote about the commercial, with the picture Howe signed for him at right:
I was 37 and he was 68 and they promised he’d pull his punches so it would almost be a fair fight and my arms and hands would only be numb for about an hour after he left and most importantly: He’d be happy to take photos with me.
So I got beaten up by Gordie Howe. And between takes of the commercial he let me wear his gloves, and I became part of what is, for all I know, a majority of North America’s population: people who had their photos taken with him. …
There are sports icons—DiMaggio, Jordan most of the time, Jeter, often—who are remote and unreachable and project a force field of brilliance that both stuns and excludes. Howe had the other kind: the light that welcomes. That, even more than the greatness, explains the sadness and the shock and the sense of personal, familial loss in the hockey-positive parts of this continent—devastating enough that it seems reasonable to guess that had there been a Stanley Cup Final game scheduled in the hours after his passing, it would have been postponed, less out of respect than from grief.
It could just have been postponed by awe.
Olbermann’s whole piece on Howe, his approachability, why he never charged fans for photos, and the impact he made in an incredible era of the NHL is well worth a read. It’s also worth watching this tribute Olbermann did on his ESPN show two years ago when Howe was facing serious health issues, which discusses the commercial further (about 2:00 in), how Howe mostly managed to avoid hitting him, and how Olbermann went from terrified to laughing both times he met Howe:
Howe will be fondly remembered by fans throughout the hockey world, but Olbermann’s stories show how much he impacted the media who dealt with him too. Rest in peace, Gordie.