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I never got out of the hospital. Lord knows I tried. Tried too hard, I guess. I had a nervous breakdown after being in there for a month. Deep down I must have known my career was over. At 34, I would never play hockey again. On March 8, five weeks after my last game, I was sitting up in my bed, having a conversation with a friend, when I crumpled over and died of a heart attack. Some said of a broken heart. Who knows?
Shocked. That was the reaction in Montreal. The papers had been writing that I was looking forward to coming back the next season. Three days after my death they held a memorial service for me at the Forum, during which they placed my body at center ice. The Canadiens, Maroons and Maple Leafs were all seated around me, and a floral number 7 adorned my casket. "Howie himself was where he was wont to be—at center," reported the Gazette. "But he was no longer vital and tensed for the fray; he lay silent and still in his casket, a tiny spray of blossom in his hands."
Fifteen thousand fans sat in silence. It was an eerie scene, believe me. Another 10,000 gathered outside on St. Catherine Street, and thousands more lined the route to the Mount Royal Cemetery, where they laid my body to rest. The service was broadcast over the radio, and the chaplain called me "the greatest of them all." I heard every word. I was up there in the Forum rafters, getting used to the surroundings, feeling sorry for myself and wishing like hell I'd cut in on Seibert instead of trying to beat him along the boards. You live. You die. You learn. I never did do things in the right order.
It was Georges Vézina, welcoming me to the rafters. He had been our goaltender for nine years. He led the league in '24-25 with a 1.87 goals-against average. What reflexes he had! But in the first game of the '25-26 season he collapsed with a high fever after the first period; he was spitting blood. They took him to the hospital, and four months later, on March 27, 1926, he died of tuberculosis.
"Hello, Georges," I said. "This isn't...."
"Heaven? No, Howie. It's the Forum."
I reached over to touch him, and my hand went right through his. "Still a sieve," I teased. "So, what's next?"
"We're to be here for a while," said Georges. "Kind of watch over the boys. It's fun. You'll see. Some of the boys drop in and we skate at night, after the Forum is empty. We fly."
It was fun. Vézina was right about that. The years flew by so fast we couldn't keep track of them. How many times did I sit up there among the banners and cheer the Punch Line of Toe Blake, Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach—the most famous scoring unit in Canadien history? I remember Richard's 50 goals in 50 games in '44-45 as if it were yesterday. Young Jean Béliveau. Crafty Doug Harvey. Boom Boom Geoffrion, who married Marlene, my only daughter, who was just four when I passed away.