Friday, June 10, 2016

Appreciation: Gordie Howe radiated greatness

, USA TODAY Sports
June 10, 2016
When Gordie Howe was well into his 70s, he still had the aura of a powerful athlete.
He looked like what you would have expected Superman to look like if DC Comics had allowed him to age. With his chiseled features, piercing bright eyes and broad shoulders, Howe looked more powerful than a locomotive.
Shaking hands with him was a blow to your self-esteem. No matter how much strength you threw into your grip, your hand would be swallowed up by his bear-like strength.
Howe was only 6-0, 203 pounds when he played, but he had a much larger presence. When you met him, you understood why goalie Glenn Hall once said Howe always seemed like he was 6-8 when you played against him. He seemed bigger than life. It was like he radiated greatness.
There were several unique aspects of Howe's dominance, The late Detroit general manager Jack Adams once said athletes like Howe only came along once every "50 or 100 years."
But what always struck me as the most fascinating aspect of Howe's career is that he was able to play a dominant tough, physical, often ruthless, style for 26 years in the NHL without developing a large collection of people hating him.
You have to look long and hard in the hockey world to find anyone who disliked Gordie Howe.
His son, Mark, once said of his dad: "He was the meanest, nastiest man on a pair of skates that I ever met. Off the ice, he was the most gentlemanly man I ever met."
That was Mr. Hockey's greatest talent. He knew where the game ended and life began.
He played with his elbows up, and if you wronged him, you faced his retribution. But if you respected Howe, he respected you. He lived by his own code of conduct, and almost everyone in the NHL understood Howe's rules.
Away from the rink, Howe was the friendliest man in hockey. While he was dominating the NHL, Howe was also the game's greatest ambassador.
There are thousands of people in North America with poignant memories of meeting Howe. He always made a point to be kind to fans. Most people in the hockey world have a Howe autograph or a Howe story or know someone who does. Howe's longevity in hockey has allowed him to touch three or four generations of fans.
Jeremy Roenick once told me he always tried to be nice to his fans because he remembered how Gordie Howe was playful with him during the pre-game warm-up at a Harford Whalers game when Roenick was a youngster.
Bobby Hull told me the story of seeing Gordie Howe play at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1949 when Hull was 10. Hull's dad ripped open a cigarette package so his son could obtain Howe's autograph.
Hull said Howe was impressively kind to him, and he always tried to remember that moment when fans asked him for an autograph years later.
The debate over who's the greatest player in NHL history never will have a clear-cut winner. You can make a case for Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky or even Mario Lemieux.
I'm old enough to have seen them all play in person. I've always believed the greatest NHL player was Howe because he was the most complete of those four players. He provided enough offense to win six scoring championships and six Hart trophies.
Plus, he could dominate teams physically. He was a rugged hitter. To maximize his time on the ice, his coaches would put Howe on defense occasionally.
He also had more durability than any of the other superstars. In addition to his record 26 NHL seasons, he had six more in the World Hockey Association. He rarely was injured and was still playing at an elite level beyond the age of 50.
Coaching legend Scotty Bowman once told me he believed Howe could have played all 60 minutes on occasion if a coach would have let him.
Hull likes to tell the story of how his father loved Howe so much that he liked to rib his son by saying he "couldn't play in the same league with Gordie Howe."
Hull could only laugh because he loved Gordie, too. That's Howe's true legacy. When he left the game, everybody loved him.

PHOTOS: Howe through the years

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