The elevator doors opened and I looked up and up. Could it be, could it really be him? I had to ask, to know. “Are you, ah, Gordie Howe?”
He stuck out his hand and we shook. “Yes, I am.”
I was so flustered. “I’m Estelle Gauthier. Oh, my brothers are going to be so jealous. I have eight of them, brothers, I mean.” I was babbling, my mouth on a roll and I couldn’t stop it. “They played, lived and breathed hockey, Hockey, HOCKEY!” I stopped, took a breath and asked. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure.” We got off the elevator and walked towards the same physiotherapy clinic. As a bride I moved from Canada and had settled in the Detroit area. I gave up my Maple Leafs’ jersey and was now a big Red Wings fan. I told him my story.
“Hockey Night in Canada, for me, went like this. From the time I could walk I’d been watching my brothers play hockey. Boys always had soooo much fun! ‘I’m Maurice Richard. I’m Gordie Howe’, they’d shout as they flew past me. Watching my brother Henri’s ankles scraping the ice on those old hand-me-down skates, I knew that you, Gordie, would have skates that stood tall.”
He smiled, raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. “Well, ah....”
“Anyway, when we moved to Gypsumville, in northern Manitoba, I started asking them, “Let me play too,” I yelled. They ignored me.
“PLEASE!” I begged.
“It’s dangerous. You’ll get hurt. You’re a girl.”
“WHY can’t girls play? It’s NOT fair!”
Then, one day Adrien slapped the ‘puck’ and it smashed to smithereens. “Estelle,” he called using his syrupy sweet voice. “Will you go to the manure pile and get a couple of pucks?”
“Will you let me play if I do?” They needed me now ‘cause they couldn’t walk to the manure pile in skates.
“We’ll see.” They handed me a shovel and a gunny sack.
I took off. I hated that manure pile but this was the Christmas holidays so it should be frozen. I poked around. “Pee-ew.” The steam rose from the warm, fresh deposits and I got a whiff. “Yucky!” I stepped back and stumbled onto three round, frozen horse buns. Perfect. I threw them into my sack and ran.
“WOW!” They gathered around examining the buns. “We-11, ok-ay, you can play.”
I jumped with glee. “Yippee!” Finally, I was part of the game, part of the team, one of the boys. “Thanks guys!”
I was led to the goalie crease. “Keep your eyes on the puck.”
“Do I just STAND here?”
“Yup, but remember the goalie is KING!” said ‘Maurice Richard’. “You’re Turk Broda.”
“Really?” He positioned me between two rusty shovels. I crouched down holding a big branch-stick in my trembling ‘Turk’ hands and there I stood for the rest of the day.
I pinched my nose and continuing in a ‘Foster’ voice I said, “IT’S HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA!” They always started like that, shouting and skating away. Then, they turned and came speeding at me, stopping abruptly at my feet, spraying ice chips in my face and shooting that hard, frozen horse bun at their helpless target, ME! I didn’t dare complain. To save myself, I dodged it like playing dodge-ball. They never stopped, only one long period, no breaks. It was fun until the puck began to melt.
“He SHOOTS,” shouted a ‘Foster Hewitt’ brother. A puck came flying at me. “Another sprawling TOE save by ‘Turk Broda’! Hurrah for Estelle our Goalie Girl!” They were really cheering me on because now, with me in the net, they could all be shooting stars of the game.”
Gordie was laughing that deep, warm laugh of his. “Ah,” he said, “I remember the flying horse buns. We had the same ones in Saskatchewan. I took my turn on the receiving end of those buns but I soon learned that it was much more fun to shoot them.”
“Yeah, well I never got to shoot a bun. Those brothers of mine....”
“Yeah, such brotherly love!”
“Brotherly love, HA!” I continued. “I stood there all day, freezing to death, between those two shovels while they were dripping in sweat. As the game wore on, our pucks softened and began to explode into little chunky bits, getting into my hair, nose, eyes and my mouth! YUCK! I was breathing those buns! But I was loyal and STUPID! My team needed me so I stood frozen tall, all day and let my brothers shoot the SHIT at me.”
Gordie burst out laughing, “Shoot the SHIT!” I joined in his laughter. Still chuckling he added, “You know, I’m often asked to speak at sports events. Do you mind if I tell your Goalie Girl story in public?”
“I’d be honoured, Gordie. And my brothers will be so impressed.”
“Thanks. It’s a great story!” As he walked away, still chuckling, he turned, waved and was gone.