ESCANABA - Gordie Howe's illustrious professional hockey career spanned five decades, but if it wasn't for Baraga native Carl Mattson, Howe's career may have lasted just five years.
Howe fractured his skull during the 1950 playoffs, and Mattson, the Detroit Red Wings head trainer was the first one on the ice to attend to Howe, playing an influential role in treating Howe's life-threatening injury, which required emergency surgery.
That's one of many stories of the unheralded Mattson, who will be posthumously inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame today. He passed away in 1985, and he'll be one of 11 people inducted during the 41st annual induction banquet at Danforth Place in Escanaba.
"The era in which Carl worked saw very little in the way of staffing compared to today's NHL, thus increasing both the number of ways Carl affected the team's performance and their importance," read a letter from current Red Wings general manager Ken Holland addressed to Ron Tervonen, who wrote the nomination letter for Mattson.
Tervonen never knew Mattson, but one day while watching a Red Wings game, Tervonen's mother told him about Mattson's stint as the Wings assistant trainer (1935-47) and head trainer (1947-58), the longest tenure in team history. It sparked his curiosity and extensive research gave him even more reasons to nominate Mattson to the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.
Mattson was born in Hancock and grew up in Pelkie and Baraga to a family with 10 boys and two girls, and he married Taimi Hackman of Baraga. He eventually got to know legendary Red Wings coach Jack Adams through connections with several U.P. players who played hockey in Detroit - many on junior and senior hockey teams, but some with the Red Wings, such as Bernie Ruelle.
"Carl wasn't a hockey player but he was friends with these guys," said Bob Erkkila, local hockey historian and UPSHF executive council member. "He got to know Jack Adams very well because of the relationships with some of the players on the senior teams.
"I remember we thought that it was really great that someone from up here was with the Red Wings," Erkkila added. "Carl had quite a career there, he really did."
Mattson's name is on the Stanley Cup four times (1950, 52, 54, 55). He participated in the longest game in NHL history (March 24, 1936: Red Wings won 1-0 over the Montreal Maroons after 116:30 of overtime). He was inducted into the Detroit Red Wings Hall of Fame in 1978.
Mattson invented an intermission tradition of drinking tea, in a way a forerunner to the sports drinks of today. He was known as Mr. Fix-it at Olympia Stadium. He managed team equipment. He was a liaison between players and coaches.
"He did everything ... invented equipment, repaired equipment, stitched players up," said Tervonen.
After retiring in 1958 as team trainer, Mattson opened up a Shell gas station in northeast Detroit, and he employed several Red Wings players as service attendants, back when pro hockey contracts barely paid the bills.
Mattson spent some time in the Upper Peninsula and loved fishing, but he spent most of the rest of his life downstate, living near his three daughters, Lyla Hermanson, Karleen Gordinier and Nancy Adams.
"We knew him when we were kids. He was very nice, very friendly, very kind," recalls Mattson's niece Evie Charles, whose mother Sylvia Wimpari was Carl's sister. Charles, who lives in South Range, is Mattson's only family member still living in the Copper Country.
While Mattson is an unsung hero in many respects, he clearly had the respect of the Red Wings organization. Mattson was in Mr. Hockey's wedding party, and when Mattson passed away in 1985, Howe was a pallbearer at his funeral.
"They were friends right to the day he died," Erkkila said.
Maybe that had something to do with Mattson helping to save Howe's life.