Friday, June 10, 2016
Kevin Allen, 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."
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.
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.
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
June 10, 2016
Bruce Picken still remembers the goal. He was a Gordie Howe fan in southern Ontario, and he wanted to see the big man play one more time. After all, Howe was 42 years old. He couldn’t play forever, could he?
Picken is from Hamilton, between Toronto and Buffalo, the new city in the National Hockey League in 1970-71. Tickets were easier to score in Buffalo, so Picken, then 20, crossed the border and witnessed a goal he can still recreate.
Howe performed in what now seems like a prehistoric age — there were six teams in the N.H.L. for much of his career, with interest in hockey mostly confined to Canada and a few states near the 49th parallel north.
Some fans of a certain age talk about Howe the way other fans do about sporting deities they were lucky enough to see back in the day — Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in one of their finals, Sandy Koufax or Roberto Clemente in his last time around the league, Dr. J performing aerodynamics above the rim, Jim Brown trudging back to the huddle. If you’re smart, you take a mental image, the way Picken did. Luminaries like Gordie Howe do not come around every day.
Part of Howe’s legend is his No. 9. One Ontario kid would never wear No. 9 as a professional, wearing No. 99 instead in homage to his boyhood hero. The photo of powerful Howe poking the blade of his stick into the mop of hair and prominent ears of young Wayne Gretzky is one of the great relics of their sport, of any sport. Howe is often considered to be the greatest No. 9 in any North American sport (Ted Williams is second in my rankings).
Picken has been a steady email correspondent for a decade or so, enriching me about his loves: hockey, Canada, Japan, birds and waterfalls. He’s a friend; I have never met him.
With the awe for hockey that Canadians possess as a birthright, Picken recalled spotting Howe in public once, in Hamilton in 1965.
“He was a passenger in a convertible going to Dundas for some banquet,” Picken said. “Amazing, because I was 15 and in the back seat of the car with my father driving with a friend of his. They were, literally, arguing over who was better: Howe or Richard. I looked over and saw Howe. I said, ‘God, there’s Howe in the car next to us.’ They thought I was kidding.”
People talked about Gordie Howe with reverence, long before he died this week at the age of 88. These sightings of legendary figures either confirm the image — or destroy it. The celebrity as primo jerk; we all have our stories.
“I knew a guy from The Toronto Star who picked him up at Pearson airport in Toronto about 25 years ago for some function,” Picken recalled. “He said Howe was incredible. Humble, appreciative and modest.”
That is the highest praise a Canadian can lavish on a great athlete from the True North Strong and Free. Humble, appreciative and modest. Even if he played across the border in Detroit. The powerful man was one of the fastest skaters in the league, down the right wing. And he was a good guy. It’s the legend of Gordie Howe.
“I bought the ticket well in advance,” Picken continued in his email, “but was having a fit because he’d been hurt — wrist or rib cartilage — and had missed a bunch of games.” The Red Wings were playing at Buffalo on Dec. 27 and Howe was back, on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich.
“I saw him do two things I’ve never seen before or since,” Picken said.
“He was at the right side of the net on a power play and started to shoot the puck,” Picken recalled. “Joe Daley was in net for the Sabres. Howe saw he couldn’t score because of the angle, so he switched from his right-hand shot to his left hand and fired the puck into the far side of the net — left handed.”
Hockey sticks are slightly curved, to enable the player to better control the puck. By suddenly switching grips, from left hand on top to right hand on top, Howe had given up some power and control, but he furnished surprise, as well as his hand-eye coordination and power, backed up by his ability to either skate over a defender or flit around him. Mickey Mantle could bunt. Michael Jordan could flick a game-winning pass. Like that.
“There was stunned silence, and suddenly the entire crowd went, ‘Oohhhhhh’ at the same time,” Picken recalled of the fans from Buffalo and Ontario.
The other play Picken remembered was a penalty kill: “He had the puck and was standing at the blue line. Two Sabres came rushing at him, and he never moved his feet. However, he moved his stick a certain way, and both skated past him. I have no idea what he did.”
Grace and power and will. At 42. The Red Wings lost that game, and a week later got beat by the Maple Leafs, 13-0, eventually finishing last in the East Division. Howe played 63 games, had 23 goals and 29 assists, and retired at the end of the season — that is, his first retirement. He rested for two seasons, joined the World Hockey Association for six seasons and then roared back into the N.H.L. for another season, this time with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, and scored 15 goals as he aged from 51 to 52.
After that, he was a living icon of his sport, popping up at hockey events — a throwback, an ambassador, carrying the aura of one of the greatest stars, but true to the code of modesty.
I recall being at one Stanley Cup finals — Montreal? New Jersey? Philadelphia? — and spotting Howe in a coffee shop, and asking him a few questions while he waited for a spot at the counter. He was a gentleman, although not to the opponents he popped.
Some fans like Bruce Picken talk with reverence about Gordie Howe as the greatest hockey player ever. Let’s put it this way: They are entitled.
Jerry Green, Special to The Detroit News
June 10, 2016
Gordie Howe played hockey with a gliding stride, a marksman’s touch — and flailing elbows.
And when he felt it was necessary, he played with the shaft of his stick.
Off the ice, Howe, who died at the age of 88 on Friday, offered a droll bit of humor, plenty of wisdom — inspirational guidance.
On it, however, everything seemed effortless.
Especially the fighting.
He was motivated by revenge — with the stick, elbows and fists. All while playing peerless hockey.
Take one night in 1959.
On one side was Rangers defenseman Louie Fontinato, regarded at the time as the heavyweight champion of the NHL. He was tough. He was strong. He was large. He could fight.
On the other side, Howe.
It all started when Red Wings legend Red Kelly and Rangers Hall of Famer Eddie Shack were involved in a scrum behind the New York net. Howe went to Kelly’s aide and Fontinato entered the fray with a wild punch.
Sticks and gloves were dropped, and Howe and Fontinato went at it.
“You could hear Howe’s punches land on Louie, whomp, whomp, whomp, like he was chopping wood,” said the late Gump Worsley, then the Rangers goaltender.
It ended with Fontinato bloodied and defeated, his nose battered and out of place.
“The first punch was what did it,” Howe said. “It broke his nose a little bit.”
Howe, by the way, also scored two goals that night.
Timing is everything
It was during those moments when Howe provided the hockey world a glimpse of the man who became a legend.
Sure, Howe was a scorer — he finished with 1,850 points and 801 goals.
And while intimidation was part of his game, so, too, was sportsmanship.
Bobby Baun, a rugged defenseman, once hammered his stick into Howe at Olympia Stadium. Baun played for the Maple Leafs, the rival most hated by the Red Wings.
But it just wasn’t nice to aggravate Howe.
Howe, patient as always, waited for his chance. Late in the game, he checked Baun behind the Toronto goal. With his right elbow snug against Baun’s head, Howe rode his adversary around the backboards and flush against the glass partitions.
And when it over, Baun’s head was gashed, dripping blood.
But this was hockey, and Howe and Baun later would became teammates in Detroit.
“Bobby Baun turned out to one of my best friends,” Howe once said. “He was a very kind-hearted man.”
All about respect
Early in his career, Howe and Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard engaged in a bitter rivalry.
The Red Wings and Canadiens disliked each other, so fighting was common. Even for Richard, a player with an ego who resented Howe’s talent.
They fought only once, during Howe’s rookie season in 1946.
In many ways, they were opposites — as players and people.
Richard was fiery and flamboyant and skated with flourishes. His eyes would light as he zoomed in on goaltenders. And his emotions spilled over.
Howe was quiet, most times. His skating style was smoother than Richard’s, and he was much more subtle.
One night at Olympia, Howe surpassed Richard as the NHL’s career goals leader with No. 545 — against the Canadiens. The drama couldn’t be better.
The fans went nuts, and the Red Wings jumped over the boards to smother Howe with hugs and congratulations. The Canadiens sulked at their bench — their “Rocket” had been surpassed by an enemy rival. You could see it and feel it from the pressbox.
All of them sulked — except one.
Jean Beliveau, always dignified, skated up the ice to shake Howe’s hand.
After playing 25 seasons, Howe took a nondescript, do-nothing position in the Red Wings front office.
“I was given the mushroom treatment,” Howe once said. “You know what I mean — where they keep you completely in the dark and every once in a while they come in and throw manure on you.”
Howe grew tired of that role. He soon would be 45, and still had an itch for the sport he loved.
So, he put his skates back on and headed for a second career with the Houston Aeros in the new World Hockey Association. He also would be a teammate to his two sons — Mark and Marty.
They played well together.
“Look, Marty and Mark and Gordie, they’re all fighting out there,” said Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife and mother to the boys.
And now, as we celebrate Howe’s life, he’s still out there.
The toughest, most skilled, most memorable and most humane player for the ages.
Jerry Green is a former News columnist