“Be afraid…be very afraid!” — Darth Vader

There he was, walking toward me, scaring the wits out of me! Should I turn and run for my life? Or should I smile, say something nice and try to avoid a violent confrontation?

Anyone where I grew up (in Royal Oak, Michigan not far from Detroit) would know him at first glance. We had witnessed him brutally thrashing opponents on TV for years and years. We all knew he could clobber and smash the daylights out of anyone who dared to cross his path, as we saw him do a million times.

Gordie Howe was the most tenaciously relentless, incessant, indestructible hockey player in human history. He was a pro macho hockey star who played for 33 seasons, 25 with the Detroit Red Wings. The right winger scored 1,071 goals and 1,518 assists for a total of 2,589 points in 2,421 games. From his pro debut (at age 18) in 1945 to 1997, he was the only hockey pro to play in games during six consecutive decades.

That’s all because he was always tough as nails. In his first game with the Red Wings, bruiser Maurice “Rocket” Richard shoved Howe and yelled at him. With one punch, Gordie knocked him out cold.

Celebrated for many years as “Mr. Hockey” — a.k.a. “Mr. Elbows,” for his ambidextrous slams from either side — he was also infamous for the Gordie Howe Hat Trick, which would include a goal, an assist and a fight (plus incarceration in the penalty box), all in one game.

From all the pummeling and body blocks you watched him deliver in game after game, you knew this wasn’t the guy you wanted to meet on a dark street one night in downtown Detroit.

And there he was, my worst nightmare, coming right at me in New York City, spring of 1969. Walking up Eighth Avenue as I walked down, he was about as tall as me, but there were two guys walking on either side of him who were even bigger gorillas. Nobody else was near them, as they hogged the sidewalk. Nobody else was near me. I was all alone, about to walk into a guy who could shove a puck down your throat with a quick flip of his notorious elbow.

Now he was fast approaching, and it wasn’t looking good. It was too late for me to run away, there was no longer any escape. I had to step forward into the abyss of delusional mayhem, trying desperately at the last moment to think of something — anything — that might lead me to survival without undue pain and suffering.

“Uh … hi there, Mr. Howe. I’m Fritz Lyon … from Royal Oak.” I could only hope he would remember my hometown somehow.

Grizzly bear Gordie Howe stopped in his tracks, likewise stopping me in mine. Before I could think what to do, Howe held out his hand. And he smiled, without saying a word.

In total shock and disbelief, I shook his hand, tried to smile myself and slipped past the gorillas and out the back end, stepping up my pace while never looking back.

It was only then that I finally understood. Of course. Gordie Howe was (and is) a Canadian. Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, May 31, 1928.

Still lives in Canada to this day. Nice guy, Gordie Howe … though that might surprise you (as it did me).