In an effort to immortalize one of the greatest to have ever played the game, Gordie Howe earned the film treatment. Having aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (home to Hockey Night in Canada) on April 28, Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story highlighted Howe’s return to the game by competing in the World Hockey Association with his sons, Mark and Marty.
Michael Shanks (from Stargate SG-1) portrayed Mr. Hockey in the lead role. Of all the actors in the film, Dylan Playfair is the only one with any hockey background. A former player in the British Columbia Hockey League, his father Jim is an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The tone of the film captures the tensions that existed between the NHL and the WHA. With the loss of Bobby Hull to the WHA, concerns were high about the NHL losing more players to the upstart league.
When Howe makes the decision to join his sons (who were drafted by the WHA’s Houston Aeros), an upcoming scene shifts to Bruce Norris of the Red Wings reacting in anger.
He proceeds to rip Howe’s banner off the wall in Detroit’s front office then yells that all of Howe’s photos are to be removed. A later scene shows Howe’s sons confronted in a hallway and being told they will never have the opportunity to play in the NHL.
While the focus is what Howe went through in his first season in Houston, a remarkable subplot is the importance of Colleen Howe, known affectionately as Mrs. Hockey. Portrayed wonderfully by Kathleen Robertson, the essence of the film captures perfectly how Colleen Howe was a very strong woman. Supportive of the decision to relocate the family to Texas, she was a true pillar of strength in the life of Mr. Hockey.
Comedy relief was evident in the scene where Gordie Howe and the Aeros compete against fellow legend Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets. With the two elbowing each other (and Hull ribbing him) during the faceoff, it was a poignant scene where Howe is the stoic straight man to Hull’s outlandish over the top personality. After the game, a scene shows the flamboyant Hull entering the Aeros dressing room in a lavish fur coat. The imagery of the fur coat displays the haves and have-nots of the WHA era.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the film was the attention to detail. The WHA jerseys depicted in the film embody how authenticity emanated throughout. The jerseys of all the teams featured in the film (Houston Aeros, Minnesota Fighting Saints, Cleveland Crusaders, Alberta Oilers, New England Whalers and Winnipeg Jets) were replicated to the exact design.
In addition, the names used on the backs of the jerseys in the film were from the real players of the era (such as Brad Selwood with the New England Whalers). Such attention to detail (including the goalie mask worn by the actor that portrayed Gerry Cheevers of the Cleveland Crusaders) made the viewer feel as if they had travelled back in time.
While the final scene shows Howe returning to the Joe Louis Arena for the 1980 NHL All-Star Game (his career comes full circle), the film fails to explain to the viewer how one got here. Had there been a graphic showing how many more years he played and the reason he ended up in Hartford, it would have served essential in informing the viewer that may not have been aware of how his career ended.
Overall, the film is more than just a tribute to Gordie Howe and his remarkable resilience. From a hockey perspective, it captures the spirit of the rivalry and tensions between the NHL and the WHA and how players like Howe showed great courage and risk in willing to jump leagues. In observing the human perspective, the unbreakable bonds of family are the predominant theme, while Colleen Howe (whom the film is dedicated to) was the true backbone and unsung hero of the Howe family.