Gordie’s Skate

31 March 2023

Gordie’s Skate
Written by Bill Waiser, Illustrated by Leanne Franson
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95 ISBN 9781771872355

Few athletes in Canadian history are as iconic as Gordie Howe. Nicknamed “Mr. Hockey,” the Floral, SK-born hockey legend played professionally for an astounding five decades (plus a single game in a sixth decade), and a school, campground, football stadium, and hockey arena are named in his honour. The Gordie Howe International Bridge across the Detroit River–Howe was the Detroit Red Wings’ star player for 25 seasons–is set to open in 2024.

It’s fitting that this historically-revered Canadian be celebrated via the arts, as well, and that one of Canada’s foremost historians, Saskatoon’s double GG Award-winning Bill Waiser, has shifted genres (Waiser’s well-known for his non-fiction work) and written an illustrated children’s book, Gordie’s Skate, to share the story of Howe’s humble beginnings, his passion to play, and his ultimate success.

Waiser’s successfully transitioned into the magical world of children’s literature with a compelling story that introduces us to a young Howe who “would have played [hockey] all day and night if he could … even in his sleep.” Inspired by Howe’s autobiography Mr. Hockey: My Story, Waiser’s book is set in Saskatoon during the 1930s. The Great Depression was in full swing, and when a neighbour knocked on the five-year-old Howe’s door with a bag of items to sell, Howe’s mother bought the sack and “Out tumbled an old pair of men’s skates.”

Howe and his sister each grabbed one, stuffed socks into the toes, and “tried skating by carefully balancing on one foot.”

This touching softcover is wonderfully illustrated in watercolours by Leanne Franson from Martensville, SK. Franson’s captured the era beautifully via the characters’ patched clothing, old cars, and household images like clothes drying on a line beside a woodstove. One can feel the old-school winter cold in the images: thick tights and socks, toques, and layers were de rigeur in the 1930s. Readers of a certain age will relate to scenes of red-cheeked children skating on sloughs, in flooded yards, or even down the streets’ icy ruts. I also delighted in the subtle evocations of prairie, including telephone poles on the wide horizon, and cattails bordering the Hudson Bay slough, which “stretched for miles, from the back of [Howe’s] house to the Saskatoon airport.”

Waiser explains in his Author’s Note that it was actually Howe’s mother’s kindness that “resonated” with him. He says it was reminiscent of his own parents, “who taught [him] the importance of helping others.”

I’m delighted that Waiser-a longtime University of Saskatchewan history professor and author of numerous diverse books, including A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 and Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion – has penned this story for contemporary children. Gordie’s Skate is a timeless tale … about the early days of a hockey legend; his kind-hearted mother; about challenging economic times and hard work; and about a bygone, pre-technological era, when receiving an old pair of skates ignited joy and passion in an athletic child, and that child grew up to become a household name.


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