On Halloween Night, 2014, a capacity crowd at Joe Louis Arena was getting a workout early on, as the Red Wings had four past Jonathan Quick and the Kings in a barrage that took less than 10 minutes time. However, after the first tally by Gustav Nyquist, the usual commercial break in play took place. This was not the typical break however.
Then 86, Mr. Gordie Howe suffered a stroke the previous weekend and was residing in Lubbock, Texas at his daughter’s home watching the contest unfold. Every seat in the building was graced with a sign that carried a bigger message: “Get Well, Gordie.” The “o” in his name was replaced with a Winged Wheel, the same logo he wore on his chest for 25 seasons representing a city that would later be dubbed “Hockeytown.”
Everyone in the building soon stood up during the break holding up their signs, and one name rang aloud in unison soon after.
“Gordie.” “Gordie.” “Gordie.”
He hadn’t played an NHL game as a Red Wing since 1971. That’s the kind of impact Howe had on not only the hockey team, but the city of Detroit and the sport itself.
“He was the greatest person for me to meet because he taught me about being humble and about being nice to people. Gordie Howe never blew anybody off ever in his life. He was always genuinely nice to each and every person who ever came over him.”
–Wayne Gretzky, NHL’s All-Time Leading Scorer
Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, a farmtown, all Howe needed was his stick, one skate, and a frozen sheet of ice. Coming out of the Great Depression, the family could afford just one pair, and Gordie had to share with sister Edna for a while before buying the other skate for one dime. A few years later at age 15, he was playing in his first training camp for the New York Rangers.
That passion would carry into his professional debut in 1945 playing for the USHL’s Omaha Knights, where he scored 22 goals and 48 points to place third on the team in scoring as a 17-year old, ten years younger than leading scorer Carl Smith. The next year, he’d be playing for Jack Adams‘s Detroit Red Wings joining another youngster by the name of Ted Lindsay who was 21 at the time. Gracing the #17 sweater he scored the first seven goals of his career and added 22 points in 58 games. He scored in his first game, and fittingly enough, fought in his second against one of the more tougher opponents in the league at the time, Bill Ezinicki (713 PIMs in 368 NHL games).
“His strength and his ability and the desire to perform the best way that he could in every game made Gordie very special. I always had a lot of respect for Gordie. He was not only an asset for the Wings, but an asset for the League and for this great game of hockey.”
–Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadiens Legend
The next two seasons saw Howe break out, scoring 16 goals in the ’47-48 campaign and 37 points in an injury-shortened 40-game slate the next year in ’48-49. He’d return for the playoffs that same season and score eight goals in 11 games. The first three seasons in a Red Wing uniform are the only times Howe had ever scored below 20 goals in the quarter-century he was with the team.
Howe’s career took off in 1949-50 playing with Lindsay and the older Sid Abel, forming the well-known “Production Line.” He scored 35 goals that year helping his team to a Stanley Cup Championship, their first of four in six years. He only played almost all of the first game of the playoffs whilst racking up seven penalty minutes in the process. The reason? It must have happened fast. Howe saw the opportunity to lay a big hit. Toronto captain Teeder Kennedy was the target and it looked like he’d be able to leave a mark. In a flash, Kennedy was gone being able to see Howe and evade the oncoming train, and all Howe saw was the side boards. Head-first, nothing separated the boards from #9, and he made contact. Remember, these guys weren’t wearing helmets yet (still don’t know how they did it).
There lay the next big star for the Wings and for the game, motionless right after impact.
His nose broken, cheekbone fractured, severely concussed, and eyeball lacerated, it looked like this 21-year old farm boy who wore the game on his sleeve for his whole life would never be able to play it again.
“Gordie.” “Gordie.” “Gordie.”
The chant rang out across Olympia Stadium as the Stanley Cup was being presented to Howe’s teammates weeks later on account of Pete Babando scoring the game winning goal against the same New York Rangers team that Howe got his first taste of training camp with in overtime.
He literally served as the team’s rallying cry.
Making a full recovery after flirting with death, Howe stepped back onto the ice like it was the same sheet his love for the game began on in Floral. The result? 43 goals and 86 points in 70 games, his best season.
“Radiologists are always excited to see his X-rays because they are unbelievable in terms of how he could tolerate the pain and continue doing what he does. When you look at the X-rays it looks like a patient that has an abnormal nervous system that doesn’t detect pain. Most patients wouldn’t be able to tolerate that pain.”
– Dr. Murray Howe, Son
Howe, Lindsay and Abel continued to be united until 1952 when Abel joined the Blackhawks for his final two seasons as a player. In a span of the last four years they were paired, the trio combined for 342 goals and 724 points capturing two Cups in the process, hence their name. Lindsay retired in 1965, six years before Gordie.
Already with four Stanley Cup rings, six Hart Trophies (MVP), and six Art Ross Trophies (Scoring champion), Howe could have followed his former teammates into retirement after 19 seasons at age 36. However, he pushed on like he had through every game, fight, and injury through his already illustrious career. His last six seasons illustrated his dedication to Detroit and the game: four 70+ point campaigns including a 100-point year at age 40, three straight 30-goal seasons before his final campaign in ’70-71, and staying loyal to the team and city that gave him a chance 25 years prior to his last although they did not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs four of his final five seasons.
“He was such a great leader. He brought things up to a certain level and everybody followed. He made you feel like a part of the team, even when a rookie came in he would support the younger players. You’ll never see a player like him again with the sloped shoulders, the way he skated and his balance. He’s one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known.”
–Frank Mahovlich, 1103 NHL points
Now, this is the time to rest a bit, right? The NHL resume is unbelievable. 1767 games played (most all-time), 801 goals scored (2nd all-time), 1850 points (4th most all-time), 160 playoff points in 157 games (T-20th all-time), the list goes on. However (no pun intended), the burning passion and love for the game took over Howe again, and after two seasons out of the game he signed with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, a league that came of age just a year before he arrived.
He wouldn’t be the only Howe on the team however, as his two sons, Mark and Marty, then 18 and 19 respectively, would join him. At 45 playing professionally with his two teenage sons, Howe returned and naturally dominated, scoring 31 goals and netting 100 points in 70 games. He’d have three more 90+ point seasons and two more 30-goal campaigns until 1979 for the Aeros (3 seasons) and New England Whalers (2 seasons). Gordie (508 points) and Mark Howe (504 points) stood at #7 and #8 on the WHA all-time point list before the league merged with the NHL and took the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and the father-son trio’s Whalers that year. That would mean a 26th (TWENTY-SIXTH) NHL season for the man that they would later call, and deservedly so, “Mr. Hockey.”
“Gordie.” “Gordie.” “Gordie.”
Joe Louis Arena was celebrating its inception the same year the Whalers came to the league with the Howes. At this point, Gordie was over half of a century old at 51 enjoying a modest campaign that would finish with 15 goals and 41 points in 80 games, probably the last man ever to contribute at that solid a level in his 50s (Jaromir Jagr-willing).
“There are people that are takers, and there are people who are givers. For me, I’ve always looked at my dad as a kind, gentle person, and he has such great charisma. He has a certain gift and people respond to him. He’s very quiet and doesn’t say much. He was taught to respect everybody and everything. He does have a certain charisma not to many people that I’ve seen have. He has an actual way with people and to me, that’s something you’re born with. He has a way of winning over people by just being who he is.”
–Mark Howe, Son, Hockey Hall of Famer
He was voted into his 23rd all-star game, his last and Gretzky’s first. He was introduced for the Prince of Whales Conference All-Stars, and the crowd stood up in unison as they did many times throughout his Detroit career. Later that year, he would tally his last NHL points against Detroit, including his 801st goal.
“Gordie.” “Gordie.” “Gordie.”
The ovation seemed like it lasted forever, much like his career. It had come full circle in an event celebrating the game’s best, him being among them for five decades in the sport. After three more contests in the playoffs, his career finally came to an end. His legacy, however, was eternal.
Always interested in giving back, he attended many charity golf outings and signed merchandise whenever he could to raise money for various causes. He was a gentle giant, one that I had the opportunity to meet seven years ago myself at the Joe. I really wish that I was older to appreciate the man who took ten minutes out of his time to talk with myself and my cousin at his book signing on the concourse about various games, fights, and just life itself. A lot of it is fuzzy to me now, but two things stood out. He had a cut on his head, one that came from accidentally hitting his forehead getting out of the car. You’d think he just played a shift or two with the Vipers as he did in 1997-98. Second were Mr. Howe’s first words to me when it was our turn to meet the man: “Where did you get all that red hair?”
That meeting along with being present at the Joe for the “Get Well Gordie” game mentioned in the beginning, the Winter Classic Alumni Game that saw him drop the puck at center ice to start the festivities, and watching the Joe sing “Happy Birthday” to Gordie on his 88th birthday on TV less than three months ago stand out as my fondest memories of a legend on and off the ice.
I’m sure many have been touched in similar ways directly or indirectly. As the rest of the League mourns the loss of one of the greatest figures the game has ever known, I would also like to join and so the same.
God bless you and all you did for others and for the game, Mr. Howe. Rest in peace.
All quotes, Howe’s beginnings and injury story courtesy of Nine: A Salute to Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe, by The Windsor Star’s Bob Duff and Detroit Red Wings Beat Writer Bill Roose