The greatest hockey player of all-time simply refers to it as “The only night I ever got a standing ovation and a standing boo.”
The date was November 27th, 1965, and the Detroit Red Wings were playing on the ice of their most bitter opponents of the era, the Montreal Canadiens. Though the Red Wings-Canadiens rivalry had cooled a bit by the mid-60s — owing to the phenomenal success of the Canadiens after the Wings’ domination of the early ’50s — the intensity was always evident when the two teams met.
Still, nothing had occurred that quite matched the events of that evening at the Forum. As much as Montreal fans claimed to dislike Red Wings superstar Gordie Howe, there was no question that the Montrealers — often cited as the most knowledgeable followers of the game — greatly appreciated the unmatched talent and accomplishments of Detroit’s #9. Red Wings fans who followed their team to the Forum in those days came back to Detroit with stories of the French-Canadian fans there referring to Gordie as “Big Jesus.” Accolades don’t come much higher than that.
That admiration was never more evident than when Gordie scored his 600th goal that evening, which led to a several-minute standing ovation, during which play was suspended as programs and hats littered the Montreal ice. Howe had eclipsed the all-time goal scoring record of Montreal’s favorite son, Maurice Richard, when he scored his 545th goal back in 1963 in Detroit. This record tally further cemented his status as the greatest player of all time. So their ovation was a sign of incredible class and good sportsmanship.
It was followed, moments later, by an eruption of boos and vicious catcalls that again held up the game … this time it was a vocal explosion against Howe. Just 2:26 after his historic goal, it seemed that Gordie had gone into a corner with Canadiens defenseman J.C. Tremblay. There was a collision involving Tremblay and one of Howe’s famous elbows, and the Canadiens player slumped to the ice in a stupor, his cheekbone badly fractured. Howe went to the penalty box for deliberately attempting to injure, a five-minute infraction, as Montrealers seethed all around him and voiced their hatred. Unmoved by it all, Gordie just blinked and took a seat.
Jump back now a half-year, to the spring of 1965. The same Montreal Canadiens were playing for the Stanley Cup against the Chicago Blackhawks. And the same Howe, whose team had been eliminated by Chicago in a semi-final round, was traveling with the teams by train while working as a Cup TV analyst for the CBC. To pass time on the train, some of the players were playing Bridge, and Gordie was watching the card game. Howe’s world-class expertise as a Bridge player was little-known — in fact, for years many in hockey incorrectly thought him as being ‘slow’ though he actually had a brilliant mind. When he congratulated a move by one of the Bridge contestants, Montreal player J.C. Tremblay — who was also observing — loudly cracked “What would YOU know about it, you big dummy?”
Gordie, stung by the remark, blinked and then leveled a dog-stare at Tremblay. “Remember that you said that to me” was all he said.
Canadiens forward Dickie Duff had been present in the train car that day. And he was on the ice in Montreal some six months later when the groggy Tremblay failed to rise after meeting Gordie’s sharp right arm. Circling the area of the accident, as doctor’s rushed to Tremblay’s aid, Duff skated past Howe and said … “The Bridge game?”
Gordie blinked. And said “Yeah.”