SASKATOON – Gordie Howe learned to play hockey with second-hand skates. His first pair tumbled out of a burlap sack his mother bought from a neighbour.
He and his sister, Edna, each took one oversized skate, stuffing them with woolen socks to make them fit. Howe’s eagerness eventually won out and he bought Edna’s skate for a dime to complete his set.
The well-known story of Howe’s humble beginnings is still discussed by the children who play on the ponds and rinks outside the hockey legend’s old school in Saskatoon.
“He grew up skating on this rink,” says 13-year-old Taylor Hanemaayer, pointing to a dark-green house that sits behind King George Community School. “That’s where he grew up. He’s the only famous hockey player that’s gone to this school.”
Len Ermine, 12, says hopeful players still look up to the man known as “Mr. Hockey.” A large sign reading “Welcome Home Gordie Howe” sits near the school’s front entrance.
“He’s a really good player,” says Ermine.
Howe is in Saskatoon for Friday’s celebrity sports dinner that will pay tribute to his life and career. He holds NHL records for most games (1,767) and seasons (26). His 801 career goals rank second to Wayne Gretzky’s 894.
The Hall of Famer played on four Stanley Cup championship teams in Detroit during a 25-year stint that began in 1946.
The 86-year-old suffered two disabling strokes late last year. His family has said his health has improved after he underwent a stem-cell treatment as part of a clinical trial in Mexico.
Howe’s sister, Helen Cummine, who lives in Saskatoon, says Howe is excited to return home. But she adds the family is reeling after her older brother, Vic, died Saturday.
Vic Howe played three seasons for the New York Rangers in the 1950s. Cummine says her two brothers were especially close and fondly remembers them pranking her as a child.
“(They) would get a brick of ice cream, cut it in half, tie (us) to a banister of the stairs and sit there and eat it in front of us. They’d say ‘When you’re free you can have some,”‘ she says with a laugh. “We never got any.”
Gordie Howe, one of nine siblings, was actually born in Floral, Saskatchewan, a tiny community just southeast of Saskatoon. The family moved to the city when he was an infant.
Patton MacLean lives in the home where the Howe children grew up. He says the house is a point of pride for the community.
“It’s like owning a piece of local history,” says MacLean. “He’s, in many people’s mind and in my mind, the greatest hockey player who ever lived.”
The city brims with pride for Howe, whether it is in constructing a statue, or naming the street in front of the city’s largest arena after him.
Mayor Don Atchison remembers attending a parade for Howe in 1966.
“It instilled a lot of pride in the city of Saskatoon,” he says. “Here we have a legend that is right amongst us here in our own city.”
Steve Hogle, president of the city’s Western Hockey League team, the Saskatoon Blades, calls Howe “a god in the hockey world.”
“He is absolutely a mythical figure,” says Hogle. “His name is just so respected in the hockey community.”
Hogle says Howe’s career still motivates players.
“Every child’s dream can be realized,” he says. “You can come from anywhere…”
WATCH: Gordie Howe is seen in a recent home video filmed in Texas as he plays some pickup hockey with his great-grandson. He is recovering at his daughter’s home after suffering a stroke late last year.