A jacket. A corduroy jacket.
I keep thinking about a corduroy jacket these days, because that's all it took to make Gordie Howe a happy camper when he put his John Hancock on his first National Hockey League contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
It was 1946.
Howe, a wide-eyed sodbuster from the Canadian prairies, was still in his teens and Jack Adams, lord and master of the Red Wings, had just agreed to terms with the freshly scrubbed kid who was to become known far and wide as Mr. Hockey.
There was, however, a glitch.
"After we signed Howe for a $4,000 bonus," Adams once told Sports Illustrated, "he walked out into the hall. Later on I came out, and there he was looking kind of glum, . I said, 'All right, Gordie, what's the trouble, something bothering you?' He said, 'Well, you promised me a Red Wings jacket, but I don't have it yet.' I felt like telling him: You want a hundred of them, go get a hundred of them."
There is a different version of the story, provided by Roy MacSkimming in Saturday Night.
"He looked at (the contract) but didn't sign it," said Adams, the coach/GM. "So I asked him what was wrong, wasn't it enough money? He just looked at me and said, 'I'm not sure I want to sign with your organization, Mr. Adams. You don't keep your word. You promised me a windbreaker and you never gave it to me.' You can imagine how quickly I got that windbreaker."
Whichever version you choose to accept, it remains among the most endearing tales in hockey folklore. I love that story.
And, with billionaire owners and millionaire players at a stalemate in the Great Shinny Squabble of 2012, it stands as a testament to the shifting of times and values.
I mean, a corduroy team jacket as part of a signing bonus? Today? Yeah, Mark Scheifele is going to hold out for that. (Actually, the Winnipeg Jets' prospect comes across as a kid who has the same youthful, just-happy-to-be-here innocence as the 1946 Gordie Howe, which is most refreshing.)
Anyway, those were the dark ages of the NHL. A time when the players truly were treated like one giant herd of cattle, with little or no rights. The conditions they lived and played in were primitive at best. Unacceptable at worst.
"Most of us were living across the river in Windsor at the time," Howe told SI. "I had a room in the same boarding house with Ted Lindsay, Max McNab, Doc Couture and a few other guys. I didn't have money for a car. Heck, I was lucky to have a room.
"I'd been sleeping in a storeroom in the stadium under the grandstand during training camp. Funny thing is, I nearly slept through my first practice session when we moved into Olympia (Stadium) before the opening game that season. The storeroom where I had my bed was off by itself, and I didn't have an alarm clock. I woke up when I heard the pucks banging against the boards."
Imagine that. Gordie Howe couldn't afford a car and slept in a storeroom. Try wrapping your head around that.
Many years later, another freshly scrubbed teenager broke into professional hockey and received a $250,000 signing bonus. He was 17, hardly old enough to handle that amount of money. But he wanted a car, and told his dad.
"He wrote me a check for $5,000 and said: 'Go get whatever you want,' " the kid told the Peterborough Examiner. "I bought a used Trans Am for $3,800."
The kid was Wayne Gretzky. The dad was Walter.
Imagine that. Wayne Gretzky had to ask his pop's permission to buy an old jalopy. Try wrapping your head around that.
None of this is to suggest today's locked out NHL players are greedy, selfish, spoiled brats compared to their shinny forefathers. And I'm not one of those old fogeys who trots around telling young people that "things were way better in the old days." I'm old, but I don't live in the 1940s or '70s.
The Howe and Gretzky yarns, however, provide a pinch of perspective to today's spat between NHL team owners and players.
They also offer a simple solution to the Great Shinny Squabble of 2012: Give all the millionaire players team jackets, a Trans Am and let's drop the puck.