×

‘Best Wishes, Gordie Howe’: A One-Autograph Collection

A Story of a Fan, a Father and a Chance Encounter

  • Greg Fennell's collection of Gordie Howe sports memorabelia includes jerseys from the New England Whalers and Houston Aeros and Howe's autograph on a boarding pass from Fennell's father. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Greg Fennell's father asked hockey legend Gordie Howe to sign his boarding pass as a present for his young son. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, June 11, 2016

In more than a half-century on this round rock we call Earth, I’ve accumulated a too-long-to-accurately-count list of things I’ve wanted to do but never found the time, impetus or opportunity to complete.

Gordie Howe factors into this. His hockey history far outdates mine, but — initiated by the quick action of my father a long time ago — I’d always held out hope of, or at least interest in, meeting Mr. Hockey if the chance arose.

It won’t, not after the original Great One died on Friday at the age of 88. And that’s my fault, but at least his autograph stays close.

The fascination of sports fans — or, worse, memorabilia collectors — in obtaining autographs has never caught my interest. The need for tangible souvenirs of my fan experiences has always gone in different directions: ticket stubs, pennants, programs. Now that I’m borderline ancient, jerseys have become touchstones … at least those that don’t require a second mortgage to purchase.

However, tucked into an address book somewhere in my home, under the letter H, is proof that my dad absorbed something from a teenage son’s obsession with hockey many years ago.

Dad spent 35 years working for the U.S. Navy as a civilian engineer, particularly with submarines. His job required the occasional business trip, with New London, Conn., being one particular destination.

On an airplane flight early in 1980, he spotted a gray-haired gentleman who looked a tad familiar. We had a share of Washington Capitals season tickets back then; I caught the bug, and my parents calmly tolerated my occasionally psychotic behavior at games. The Hartford Whalers must have just played a contest at the long-since-leveled Capital Centre. I suspect the Whalers were heading home, flying commercial, as sports teams did back then.

Regardless, for whatever reason, Dad made the connection.

He walked down the aisle, pulled out his boarding pass and asked Gordie Howe for his autograph. By all I recall being told, Gordie was more than gracious — not unusual for a hockey player, even today — and signed the card, “Best wishes, Gordie Howe.”

It’s the only autograph I own. It’s the only autograph I’ll ever own.

Because hockey didn’t become part of my existence until the Caps’ arrival in 1974, my Howe history is much different than that of other longtime NHL fans. A year prior to Washington joining the hockey fraternity, Howe had came out of retirement to sign with the rival World Hockey Association, lured by the prospect of playing with his sons, Mark and Marty.

The WHA fascinated me, still does 35 years after its demise. The bounce of faint AM radio signals off the Earth’s atmosphere enabled me to — occasionally with some difficulty — monitor the developments of Howe’s New England Whalers on WTIC from my Maryland home. For a couple of years, I fantasized of making a road trip to Cincinnati, having become fond of that city’s Stingers (thank you, WLW), once I got my driver’s license.

The league died in 1979, the NHL absorbing its four strongest surviving franchises under the guise of expansion. The move also brought Howe back to the NHL at age 51 with the renamed Hartford Whalers, and he played one more season — and, with the swipe of a pen, entered my personal world — before retiring for good.

Yes, he was born in Saskatchewan. Yes, he built his Hall of Fame resume in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in Detroit. But Gordie Howe will always be Connecticut to me, a place that adopted him as its own and served as his home for many years after he finally took his skates off for good.

I never met him, and that’s my fault. But I’ll still read the stories and watch the videos, will still fondly recall one of hockey’s greatest people. And I’ll keep coming across that boarding pass every time I have to look up an H in my address book.

Howe’s is the only sports autograph I own. It’s the only one I’ll ever own. It’s the only one I want to own. Thank you, Gordie.

And thank you, too, Dad.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.