Thursday, August 03, 2006

Havana's Hockey Hero

Life isn't all gluttony and beer these days; as you may have heard, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has had a rough week. This has caused a great deal of excited pants-wetting in the White House, where officials think they may have another chance to make another country awesomer, and maybe they'll be able to get this one right.

Castro's a figure of legend, one of the last of the larger-than-life rulers in the mold of Charles de Gaulle and Don Shula. Whatever you think of him, when he ultimately does smoke the Big Cigar, his passing will mean the end of an era. To that end, I thought I'd share a little-known chapter of Castro's life.

The year: 1939. Graham Greene, who when not writing novels or conducting espionage missions did a little hockey scouting, was watching the Havana Tropicals in action. He was most taken by a teenager, not the fastest skater, but who always found himself in the mix of things, doing the dirty work, getting the goals. Impressed, Greene spoke to him after the game. The teenager responded:

"I began this hockey team with 82 men. If I had do it again, I'd do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and plan of action."

Greene didn't know what the hell the teenager was talking about, but nonetheless, he passed on the information to his friend James Norris.

Cut to: 1947. Detroit Red Wings training camp. Legends of the future abound. There's Gordie Howe, about to start his second season. "Terrible Ted" Lindsay. Sid Abel. And among them, unknown, a thickly-bearded young man who tends to speak with a heavy accent.

No one could figure out the "Havana Humbler," as he was known. But two things were certain: he and Howe had a magic, a chemistry. And he was really free with the good cigars.

(Below: long after Castro left the NHL, his influence was still felt)

In exhibitions, the Castro-Howe tandem lit up the scoreboard. But James Norris wasn't happy. His new phenom looked at him with a steely glare, as if he despised everything Norris stood for. Even worse, the young Howe was obviously influenced -- skating around the ice, number 9 was heard repeating "The revolution is a dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters" to himself.

Norris made a decision. A fateful one, as it turned out.

In the next practice, following orders, Sid Abel drove Castro into the boards, and got his stick up a bit. Castro wouldn't stand for the dishonor -- he and Abel dropped the gloves. A flurry of fists ensued, and when it was over, the Havana Humbler stood supreme. A bloodied Abel, as he was helped off the ice, screamed "Get that Commie off the team!"

The next day, Castro was sent to the AHL.

He enjoyed a couple 45-goal seasons with the St. Louis Flyers, but disappointed by the obvious blacklist, he left the country, and started getting into baseball a bit more. Castro forged a bond with Maple Leafs backup goalie Ernesto Guevara, and the rest is history.

But hockey never fully left Castro's life. Gordie Howe never forgot his friend, and in the 1970s, attempted to bring him out of retirement to join the Houston Aeros. Unfortunately for hockey history, U.S. immigration authorities weren't fooled by the crudely-forged "Fidel Howe" passport, and Castro was denied entry.

Then in the 1989-90 season, he skated a few games for the IHL's Phoenix Roadrunners, as a publicity stunt. It was a disaster, and best not mentioned again.

Castro also served as personal hockey tutor to L'ubomir Vaic. Just in case you're wondering why one of the Czech league's biggest stars now finds it so hard to crack the NHL again.

5 comments:

alanah said...

Best post ever.

But you forgot to mention the time when Howe saved Castro's life, donating one of his own kidneys to him after a really rough weekend in Detroit.

"Fidel, you gotta stop with the drinking!" Gordie always said.

gsdgsd13 said...

That's a good anecdote, as well. It's a good thing for history that Howe was so generous.

Really, I think that there's a book in this, once some courageous journalist gets dedicated to ferreting out the truth about the original third member of the Production Line.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I was just at the bookstore and judging by the lame-looking offerings in the "new fiction" area, you may be on to something. I saw one book I was tempted to buy - ONE!

At least your scenario's something different, for crissakes!

L.P.

p.s. let me know if you'd like some photoshop help there... hint hint

gsdgsd13 said...

Photoshop help? Not sure what you're implying -- no photos were even remotely retouched for this post.

Nanuk of the North said...

As a Canadian, I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know anything of this glorious story.

My, what an informative blog!