I would be remiss not to mention the passing of Gordie Howe, the legendary Detroit Red Wing known as "Mr. Hockey." As I was born and raised in suburban Detroit, the sport of hockey is indeed hallowed and holy to my own life. Detroit is self-styled as "Hockeytown" and the proof is empirical ("Detroit is still the best hockey city in America")
Gordie Howe, by so many measures, is considered the best hockey player of all-time. He is the only professional hockey player to have played in six decades, debuting with the Red Wings at the age of 18 in 1946 all the way to a special one-time appearance with the Detroit Vipers in 1997. His actual last full season as a pro hockey player was in 1979-1980 at the age of 52 for the Hartford Whalers, playing with his sons Mark Howe and Marty Howe, where he scored 41 points-15 goals and 26 assists-and played in the 1980 NHL All-Star Game at the newly christened Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
In his 25 pro seasons, he was an All-Star 23 times, and he was in the top 10 in scoring for 21 consecutive seasons. He won the Stanley Cup, the ultimate team prize in the sport, with the Red Wings four times. He won the Hart Trophy, for league most valuable player six times, and the Art Ross Trophy, for league leading scorer, six times. Only "The Great One" himself, Wayne Gretzky, has scored more goals over the course of an entire career.
Following Gordie's passing on June 10th, two main narratives have emerged from his life and career. First, how incredibly skilled and tough he was on the ice. The quantity of his numbers has a direct correlation to the quality of his toughness. The sharpness of his elbow, the paunch of his punch, and the snakiness of his stick play (all adorably demonstrated on Keith Olbermann in this classic "This is Sportscenter" commerical) was his mad game. Hockey is still one of the most physical sports on the planet, but the classic toughness of Gordie Howe has been tempered for many different reasons, especially the NHL's own concussion crisis which has come about as players have become bigger and stronger and quicker than ever.
The second narrative which has come out of Gordie's passing was his incredible humility, openness, and graciousness in his relationship to his many, many fans and well-wishers. It's not hyperbole to say if you lived in Detroit you either had a wonderful story of meeting Gordie or knew someone who met him. My uncle John and my cousins Jacob and Johnny, the most devoted and talented hockey players in my own family, met Gordie once and spent nearly an hour with him talking shop and getting encouraged to be the best players and people they could be.
It wasn't so much that Gordie went out of his way to make time with his fans and well-wishers. The time and energy he spent, his graciousness and humility, was his way. My hometown Detroit Free Press has a ton of great articles which reveal this part of Gordie's legacy, so check out the links to learn more: From Jeff Seidel, Helene St. James, Mitch Albom, Drew Sharp, Scotty Bowman, Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky and more great tributes from the eulogy at his funeral by his son Murray Howe, and so many of his fans, friends, and well-wishers.
Gordie also became famous for what became known as the "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick", getting a goal, assist, and having a fight all in one game. I was shocked to learn from Katie Baker, the great hockey journalist from The Ringer, that Gordie himself only accomplished this feat twice in his career. Of course what we do here at Sports Theology is stretch the bounds of sport and faith to see if they can fit together, so in that spirit, in Gordie's spirit, let me briefly explain how the "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick" can be a kind of daily religious practice.
1. Goal: What are we trying to accomplish in the practice of our faith? What is the goal? Are we trying to escape the world? Save the world? Find ourselves? Lose ourselves? Escape from other people? Save other people? In the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the classic wisdom texts of the Hindu/Vedic spiritual tradition from India, the nature of action and the motivation behind our action is explained as such: "You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty."
How to understand this seemingly contradictory instruction in a colloquial way? In performing action, and in being motivated to perform action, we must understand our sense of duty and obligation in performing right action, or dharma. However, in performing that right action, we must not be selfishly attached to the results of our actions. If we cling to these results in a destructive self-absorbed way, we are no longer performing right action. We must also understand that the results of our action are always the result of collaboration and community, even if the effects of this collaboration is subtle. Our ancestors and predecessors have always laid the path and the way for what we do and what we accomplish. We have a responsibility to them and to all living beings to perform our right action for the benefit of all. That is the goal of our right action.
2. Assist: The goal of our right action is the way our right action assists all living beings in performing their own right action. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions talk about the concept of seva, or selfless, devoted service, ideally done with love and devotion, or bhakti, for the pleasure, benefit, health, and well-being of everyone we encounter. Our goal actually is to always assist others in the performance of right action. Our duty to assist places us firmly in the chain of right action which is the active and immanent presence of the Divine in the world all around us.
3. Fight: One of the greatest modern advances in theology has been the conviction that knowledge of the Divine must always correlate and create righteous action of justice for the most vulnerable living beings in our society and on the planet. From the "Social Gospel" to liberation theology to Womanism, we understand that the way we think and act as people of faith must never be disconnected from the suffering of our neighbor. Theology without this connection to the righteous action of justice is not actually theology, for it only represents spaced-out abstractions rather than the spark and flame of resisting injustice and oppression which is the actual reality of Divine knowledge.
As Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his classic tome A Theology of Liberation, our freedom in faith comes from our willingness to fight against what oppresses and separates us. He writes:
"The freedom to which we are called presupposes the going out of oneself, the breaking down of our selfishness and of all the structures that support our selfishness; the foundation of this freedom is openness to others. The fullness of liberation-a free gift from Christ-is communion with God and with other human beings."
I won't say Gordie Howe was a theologian or a saint, but when we recall his life and the way he related to so many people, we see someone who understand this simple Divine truth of opening up and going out to others. He leaves behind so many living memories and for all Detroiters and hockey fans everywhere his spirit remains ever-fresh.