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Sunday, May. 19, 2019
The day Gordie Howe came to Sudbury
by Randy Pascal

Like so many of his era, Phil Smyth recalls with great fondness the treasured memories of growing up, a Canadian youth, in the golden age of hockey dreams.

Now 58 years old, the pretty much lifelong Sudburian can clearly recount many of the adventures of his younger days, a period of time frequently interspersed with connections to our national game. Few, however, will rival the day Gordie Howe came to Sudbury.

The youngest of nine children in the family - seven boys and two girls - Smyth was raised in what was then referred to as Waters Township, located roughly halfway between Naughton and Lively.

"Everyone played hockey, except for my two sisters, right from my oldest brother, right down to myself," confessed Smyth. "Like every other kid at that time, we were close enough to the rink that we could put our skates on at home and walk to the rink. We would live on the rink as kids."

"If you were a goalie, you were (Gump) Worsley or (Rogie) Vachon, but for a lot of us, Gordie Howe was the guy." The magical lore of the heroes of children from coast to coast was etched in the maleable minds of the pre-teen years via the weekly tradition that now carries far less systematic structure to that one very special night of the week.

"It was a different time, a different place, obviously," noted Smyth. "But back then, when I was little, we had pretty much just one channel to watch, and every Saturday night, it was Hockey Night in Canada. For us, getting an apple and watching the game was our treat. We lived for hockey."

Ironically, the Smyth team affiliation was somewhat haphazard. "My dad played a little bit of broomball, but he was a big horseshoe guy with Harvey Beech (father of Sudbury Wolves' announcer Gary Beech)," he said. "But I guess my dad just liked how Gordie Howe played."

In what he and his brothers believe was likely the summer of 1964, "Mr Hockey" would make his way to the Nickel City. "Gordie was a sports advisor for Eaton's and he was in town for that," said Smyth. "We went to see him, I was just five years old."

"There is really only one thing I remember from that, and I honestly remember it just as clear today as back then. We were all lined up, and we all had brushcuts at the time. I can remember him (Howe) rubbing my head and asking me who cut my hair."

"I told him it was my dad. He said, "I'm going to have to stop by for a haircut some time". That's all I really remember, other than the (signed hockey) card." For years, the memory sat untouched in the far reaches of his mind. Hockey, by contrast, was never too far out of reach.

Smyth would enjoy many a game at the former Stanley Stadium in Copper Cliff, eventually moving on to suit up with coach Bert McLelland and the Copper Cliff Braves, even playing against his older brother, Peter, and his teammates with the Lively Hawks.

He looks back on an all-Ontario championship claimed in 1974-1975 with Copper Cliff High, a team led at the time by scoring sensation Jamie Conroy. "Believe it or not, I'm actually a Wolves' alumni," acknowledged Smyth.

"It was one game, one shift," he laughed. "The year before, I went to the (Toronto) Marlies training camp and they sent me to Markham. I was homesick and came back to play with Copper Cliff. The next year, the Wolves invited me to camp, but I got cut."

"I can't remember if they had injuries or something, but I got called up for a game. There was a draw in the Wolves' end, it comes back to me, and I put it off the boards to (Dave) Hunter. The puck goes in their end, they get it and come back, and the puck goes around me for the icing."

"Mike Gazdic came on and said coach wants you off, and that was it." Though his playing days would be limited to far more recreational hockey, the chance to see the stars in action seldom passed him by.

"After high school, I went to university in Montreal, to Concordia," explained Smyth. "We got to know some of the usherettes at the Forum in Montreal. We would buy standing room tickets, go to the game, stand for the first period, and it the season ticket holders hadn't come in, they would let us come down and sit near the bench. It was pretty neat."

"I was fortunate enough to see Gordie play in his last season (1979-1980) as a member of the Hartford Whalers against the Habs." Years later, Smyth, his brother and father would be sharing stories, when the signed hockey card made a re-appearance. But that was only half of the thrill.

"I had the book, "Hockey...Here's How!," said Smyth. "We were sitting out on the deck, flipping through the pages, and came across an envelope. We opened it up and there were the two pictures of Gordie. You look over his shoulder and you can just see the corner of the Sudbury Arena sign. They must have had a sign on the sidewalk at one time."

"Whe Gordie passed away a few years back, everyone was telling all of these stories about what a wonderful gentleman that he was. It struck me that this was exactly how he was when I met him at five years old."

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