For decades, and generations of Canadians, he was the game, so much so that he required an honorific.
Gordie Howe, born of the prairies, cherished across the nation and revered by everyone he encountered, died Friday morning surrounded by family at his son Murray’s house in Ohio.
He was 88 but, really, for anyone who watched him play or spent time in his company, he was ageless.
Howe was exactly what we want our hockey heroes to be and, wistfully, wish they still were.
Handsome, fearless, humble, ridiculously muscled, funny, self-effacing, soft-spoken, enduring and endearing, it’s as if he was created by some higher power striving for the perfect player. On the ice he was as tough as a Saskatchewan winter. Off it, he was a gentleman in the truest sense. A devoted family man who always had time for his fans whether it be a friendly conversation or handshake with one of his huge gnarled mitts, the starry-eyed losing themselves, or a hand, in both.
“The greatest player ever,” Wayne Gretzky often marveled. “The best that ever played,” echoed Bobby Orr. Both legends venerating a greater power.
Even his last years were the stuff of fables. Already suffering dementia, he had a serious stroke in October of 2014 and appeared to be shutting down. But his family said stem cell transplants received at a clinic in Mexico allowed him to rally — enough that he walked for the first time in two months – and he was honoured at a dinner, and had a rink named after him, in Saskatoon in February last year.
In March, three days before his 88th birthday, Howe was celebrated at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena where more than 20,000 fans sang “Happy Birthday” to their local hero.
Howe’s skills were ethereal, his strength mythical. His numbers, the stuff bleeding off the back of hockey cards, are truly mind bending even when considered 36 years after he landed his last elbow.
Howe was an NHLer in five different decades, beginning in 1945-46 as a Red Wing — how he’ll most be remembered — and retiring after the 1979-80 season spent with the Hartford Whalers, a campaign in which, despite turning 52, he tallied 15 goals and 41 points. Remarkable for an icon with silver-streaked hair who had been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame eight years earlier.
Between those bookend seasons? Even the jaded can marvel unabashedly.
Howe played 1,767 games in the NHL, more than anyone else, scoring 801 goals (2nd all-time), adding 1049 assists (9th) for 1850 points (3rd). Add to that to ridiculous durability, another 419 games in the defunct World Hockey Association – a league he joined in 1973 in order to play with his sons – and 174 goals, 334 assists and 508 points there.
Then there was an additional 235 playoff games in both leagues in which he tallied 96 goals and 231 points. Many players would consider those post-season numbers alone as a solid career.
There were six Hart Trophies as the NHL player most valuable to his team, 21 selections to the first or second NHL all-star team at right wing, six times he led the league in points. His name is on the Stanley Cup four times and he won another two championships and one MVP in the WHA.
He was in the top 5 in NHL scoring for a stunning 20 consecutive seasons. Let that sink in for a moment.
Gracious off the ice but unrepentantly intimidating on it, four times he hit the 100 penalty minute mark and a Gordie Howe Hat Trick — a game in which a player records a goal, an assist and a fight — is part of the game’s lexicon, even though Old Elbows only did it twice himself.
The stats frame a career but they don’t provide the entire picture of the man and how he was worshipped. His wasn’t a legacy you could paint by numbers.
If hockey is indeed Canada’s unifying religion, than Howe was its Pope.
Dennis Hull once recounted how he had a photo of Mr. Hockey, his favourite player, on his wall when he was 16.
Three years later, in his NHL debut, Hull’s Hawks faced Howe’s Red Wings.
In one of Hull’s oft-told tales he said he spent most of the game on the bench, wide-eyed, reaching out whenever Howe would skate by so “he could touch greatness.”
Suddenly, Hull got a tap on the back. It was Chicago coach Billy Reay.
Reay told Hull to jump over the boards to watch Howe.
“I can see him fine from here,” argued the nervous newbie.
After getting on the ice, Hull somehow managed to break free with the puck on his stick and a clear path to the net. At least he did until he felt a tug on his sweater as he was lifted up off the ice from behind.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Howe demanded.
“Wherever you’re going, Sir,” Hull responded.
A relentless, some would say vicious, competitor, Howe always maintained he was neither mean nor dirty.
“Maybe there were times when I was hyper-aggressive,” he once told the Star. “(But) the only guys I’ve ever done anything to are the ones who tried to embarrass me on the ice.”
Or messed with a family member.
For the 1973-74 season, Howe came out of retirement to sign a four-year contract with the Houston Aeros of the fledgling WHA so he could play with his sons Mark and Marty. He’d retired from Detroit two seasons earlier.
During that first season, one opponent made the foolish decision to hold 18-year-old Mark down on the ice after a skirmish. The unfortunate soul then compounded his mistake by cursing the old man when Gordie told him to he let the boy go. The miscreant then took his life in his own hands suggesting that dad let his son fight his own battles.
Gordie had heard enough.
“My dad reached over, put two fingers up the guy’s nose and lifted him off Mark,” Marty once recounted. “His nose stretched about a foot it seemed. I almost got sick watching it.”
Brother Mark once told ESPN Classic: “Dad’s mindset on the ice was different than most anybody else I’ve ever met. He can be cruel. I’ve seen him be vicious. I’ve seen him hurt people and I used to think, ‘Wow, it’s like he meant to do it.’”
Howe flourished in the days of helmetless, visorless shinny when it was not unusual for a player to get his face sewn back together on the bench. Often he would say he was a proponent of “religious hockey.” Meaning? “It was better to give than receive.” Still, Howe’s face carried the reminder of the 300 stitches he earned in his career. By his own count, his nose was broken 14 times.
“What I learned early on was that you had to be a little crazy to survive in the NHL,” Howe wrote in an autobiography, Mr. Hockey, released in 2014. “In my first NHL game, I had three teeth knocked out. From then on, if someone wanted to hit me in the mouth, they’d have to come through some lumber to get there.”
Bobby Hull, Dennis’ brother and another famous wearer of the No. 9, is quoted in another Howe tome, Gordie Howe Number 9 saying: “Howe is not the demon some people say. If you want to play hockey, he’ll play. He just wants to play hockey, but if guys want to fool around, they always come out second best.”
Howe’s toughness, determination and humble nature were natural for a kid who was the sixth of nine children growing up in the depression. Born March 31, 1928 in Floral, Sask., he was only nine-days old when his family – his dad was a farmer turned mechanic and construction foreman – moved from a little farmhouse with a dirt floor to the outskirts of nearby Saskatoon. His mother, wrote Howe, was outside chopping wood the day labour pains set in. With her husband away working, she went inside and gave birth to Gordie.
“She cut the umbilical cord herself and waited for my father to come home,” Howe recounted in his book.
Howe describes his family as poor but, he notes, almost everyone was in what had become a dust bowl of a prairie. And that poverty helped push him into hockey. Neighbours helped neighbours in those days so when a woman came to door selling a sack of used items to get by while her husband was ill, Gordie’s mom Katherine scrounged together a few dollars to help her out.
In that bag was a pair of used skates. Gordie, five at the time, claimed ownership and though he had to wear extra wool socks to make the Size 6 boots fit, “putting on those skates was the moment I fell in love with hockey. From that day on I skated for as long as I could, whenever I could. I don’t know if it was because I thought I could do well at hockey or whether I just loved to skate. I do know that whenever I jumped on the ice, I felt like a million bucks.”
Howe would skate on frozen rivers, ponds, backyard rinks and ever frozen ruts in gravel streets, the blades rarely coming off his feet, even when he stopped to eat.
With borrowed equipment, Howe eventually played his first organized hockey at around 11 years old and would play for as many teams as he could, often as a goalie, and spent any free time practicing his shot and stickhandling with a puck, tennis ball or even clumps of dirt. For a shy kid who was awkward, mildly dyslexic and teased at school where he failed Grade 3, the rink was a sanctuary where he found confidence and a sense of belonging.
By the time he was 15, Howe was 6-feet tall, pushing 200 pounds — basically his NHL playing size — with muscles forged from helping his father on construction jobs, often hauling 90-pound bags of cement by hand. He’d also already been playing senior hockey in Saskatchewan and pro scouts started to take note. At 15, he attended a New York Rangers camp but declined to sign a card that would bind him to the team. At 16, he signed with Detroit and was assigned to the Wings’ development team in Galt, Ont. However, he could only practice with the team because of rights transfer issues. In Galt, he also worked in a metal factory because he was too shy to walk into a new school. A lack of formal education would always bother Howe. He deemed not going to high school in Galt as the “biggest mistake” of his life.
Howe would then play one season of minor-pro hockey, for Omaha, before cracking the then six-team NHL with Detroit at 18. In his first game, at home against the Leafs, Mr. Hockey skated on the top line and scored the first of his 801 NHL goals. He wore No. 17 that year but soon switched to No. 9 because players with lower numbers slept in the more comfortable lower berths on the train during road trips.
A few years later, Howe would find himself on the “Production Line,” as it came to be known, with Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel. In 1949-50, Howe scored 35 goals — equaling the number he’d potted in his first three NHL seasons — and began that stretch of permanence among the NHL’s top scorers.
In a recent interview, Lindsay — who calls Howe “the greatest hockey player ever to play — offensively, defensively; nobody fooled with him because it would be a losing battle for them” — explained what made his linemate the game’s most dominating force. Lindsay said that, along with his superhuman strength, Howe was also cerebral. He remembers fondly how he and Howe would stay on the ice after practice, long after their teammates departed, bouncing pucks off the Olympia boards to learn the nuance of every carom. But, more than that said Lindsay, it was the attitude Howe brought to the rink each day that made him special.
“He was a humble guy. He was a thankful guy,” said Lindsay. “Even after we’d won the (regular-season) league championship eight times and we’d go to training camp, he still worried about making the team. And that was sincere. That was not put on. He loved the game so much, he always worried in the fall whether he’d be good enough to make it. He was grateful and thankful that he had the talent to play a game he didn’t think he was good enough to play in.”
Longtime Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr once wrote that there was an admirable “economy” to Howe’s game and he played with such pure skill that it was sometimes possible to take him for granted.
“Howe . . . (had) the ability to eliminate everything superfluous from his approach and to cut to the barest minimum the number of strides needed to accomplish any task. Maybe there was no style in his play at all, only substance. Many of his greatest plays were almost invisible, executed with such ease, delicacy and deft touch that only a close examination of the taped replay would reveal their true artistry,” Orr wrote when Howe retired in 1980. At 52, and a grandfather, he was the oldest NHL player ever.
Howe, of course, described his play to Orr with his typical self-depreciation.
“I didn’t figure there was much use running all over the place,” he said. “So I tried to figure out where the puck was going to go and then I tried to get to that spot by the shortest possible route. Probably my laziness had a lot to do with it too.”
While the longest lasting memory of Howe’s career is how long he lasted — at the age of 69 in 1997 as a publicity stunt, he played a game in the minors, meaning he played in six different decades as a pro — there were some defining moments.
In 1950, on the first day of the playoffs and just before Howe turned 22, it appeared his career might be over when he was either clipped by the stick of Toronto’s Teeder Kennedy, missed a check on the Leaf or was himself leveled — the story varies, depending on the source — and was launched head first into the boards. He hit so hard, he broke his skull, cheekbone and nose and suffered a serious concussion along with a badly scratched eyeball. In critical condition, surgeons drilled a hole into Howe’s cranium to relieve pressure on his swelling brain.
“Staying alive was a bit touch and go for a while,” Howe wrote in his typically understated fashion. There was also concern he might lose an eye; his career was very much in jeopardy,
Howe not only played every game the next season, he led the league in goals (43), assists (43) and points (86), a full 20 points ahead of runner-up, and hated Montreal rival, Rocket Richard. While No. 9 resumed carrying the Wings on his famously sloped-shoulders, the injury did leave him with a facial tick that caused his teammates to call him Blinky.
Mr. Hockey had an on-going feud with the Rangers’ Lou Fontinato, considered one of the toughest enforcers at the time, and that led to one of the most famous fights of his era. During a game in 1959, Howe — provoked by some never-forgotten earlier transgressions from the Ranger — grabbed Fontinato’s sweater with his left hand and unleashed a series of right uppercuts that one player told Life magazine was “just like someone chopping wood.”
Howe, in his book, wrote about the fight noting that, Fontinato’s “face was covered with blood and his nose wasn’t where it should have been” and “some of the reporters on hand described is as the worst beating they’d even seen anyone take on the ice.”
“I’d say I probably get asked about that fight more than any of the goals I ever scored. I’d rather talk about the Stanley Cups and some of the great teammates I was lucky enough to play with, but I guess that scrap does have its place in the scheme of my career. No one was in much of a hurry to drop the gloves with me afterward, which was fine by me.”
Howe never forgot a slight. Bobby Baun, who calls Howe the best athlete ever — “he could probably play any sport and be great at it immediately” — tells a story of how he once rocked Howe with a bone-rattling, borderline legal check. Some 10 years later, Howe got his stick up in Baun’s face, supposedly while following through on a shot. As Baun lay bleeding on the ice, Howe leaned down and said, “Now we’re even.”
That toughness afforded Howe extra room on the ice at times but, if that space wasn’t there, he was always willing to drive hard through traffic, his elbows firing like pistons. He had such strength in his stride and power in his arms, it often seemed impossible for defenders to stop him from getting off his shot. It didn’t hurt that he could fire the puck either left- or right-handed with the straight stick blade of the day.
That made him a remarkable and relentless offensive threat during his 26 NHL seasons and led to an historic accomplishment in 1963. Howe started the season four goals behind Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s all-time mark of 544. On Oct. 27, with the Canadiens at the Detroit Olympia, Howe tied the record with a wrister from the slot. Fittingly, after a five-game slump, Howe broke the record with Montreal in town again.
Howe, with his eventual 801 goals, would hold the record until Gretzky broke it in 1994.
While he was the greatest of his time, he often later noted that he felt betrayed when he learned his salary was often below that of lesser players despite being assured by ownership that he was the highest-paid skater in the league.
Off the ice, Howe married Colleen Joffa, who he’d met at a Detroit bowling alley in 1953. As well as being his soulmate, she became his agent and business manager. They had four children, Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray and were married 55 years until Colleen’s death in 2009 from Pick’s Disease. She was 76.
If possible, Howe’s popularity increased in retirement when he became a great ambassador for the sport, always accommodating and generous with his time. Fans getting a beautifully penned Howe autograph — a signature he practised as a teen to ensure it was easily read — also almost always received a chat, chuckle and the impression No. 9 enjoyed the encounter as much as they did.
“It was,” wrote Howe, “a good long run by any measure.”
Mr. Hockey is survived by four children, nine grandchildren, at least one great-grandchild and a game that will never be the same.