Hockey is not my favorite sport. I do appreciate how brutal the sport is, how tough the players are, and have excellent experiences involving the sport, including calling the Beanpot, rooting for BU as a fan, and a childhood of Hartford Wolf Pack games. I also appreciate the stories and myths of the ice, like I do for all sports. So when I heard that Gordie Howe died on Friday, I couldn’t help but be sad, as the toughest and most mythical player in hockey’s long history has finally passed on.
Of all the players to play the survival game called hockey, no one captured the balance of physicality and skill the way Gordie Howe did. From 1946 until 1971 with the Detroit Red Wings, and then from 1973 until 1980 in the World Hockey Association, Gordie Howe wrote a story that defied the odds and saw him play a grand total of 32 professional hockey seasons. He set records for scoring and career longevity and become the standard for hockey toughness.
That toughness came from his home town and upbringing. Howe was one of nine children; born in a farm house in Floral, Saskatchewan, a remote part of an obscure state who’s name is the definition of the middle of scenic nowhere to non natives. He moved out to Saskatoon when he was nine days old, and they lived there through the worst of the Great Depression. When he was old enough, he spent his summers working construction with his father. He started playing hockey at 8 years old, and showed a natural talent for the national sport of Canada. He also showed disinterest in school. He quit school at 16 years old and joined his father as a construction worker, while continuing to play hockey in the local leagues. He eventually got a tryout with the New York Rangers, and the Rangers offered him a contract. But Howe would have to go to Notre Dame, a school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, that was known for churning out good hockey players. Howe did not feel comfortable going there and declined the contract. He returned home to play with his friends and stayed for a year.
In 1944, he was noticed by the Detroit Red Wings organization. He signed on and played with the Red Wings minor league team, and was called up in 1946. He played his first two seasons wearing number 17, and was effective but not great. He did not take his biggest strides towards hockey immortality until 1948, when he changed his number to 9. He gained a reputation as a skilled scorer and a man quick to throw down his gloves and fight. There is an occurrence in hockey known as a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”, which is when a player scores a goal, records an assist, and gets in a fight. He fought so much his rookie year that his coach, Jack Adams, asked him “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?” Howe showed that he could play better than anyone who had taken the ice to that point. He led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups in the 50’s and wrote the NHL record book. He would set a record for scoring 20 or more goals every season from 1949 until 1971, became the first player to score 90 points in a season, and then 100 points in a season. He won the Hart Trophey (League MVP) 6 times, and along with Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, he became the standard bearer for the NHL.
He retired in 1971 as the leading goal scorer in the history of the NHL, but mostly capable of playing. He had bad wrists and was forced to retire before he was ready to do so. The amazing thing was that he was able to keep playing after he turned 42, when mere hockey mortals would have to retire. Instead, with the help of a wrist surgery and fueled by disputes with the front office of the Red Wings, Howe returned to the ice in 1973, playing in the World Hockey League, a competitor to the National Hockey League. He joined the Houston Aeros, because his sons were playing there. He led the Aeros to consecutive championships in 1974 and 75. After his time in Houston ended, the epilogue arrived. He went with his sons to the New England Whalers, later the Hartford Whalers, and played until he was 51 years old. In his last season in Hartford, he scored 15 goals and collected 26 assists for 41 points in a career high 80 games played that season.
Gordie Howe did things on the ice with skill and strength that no one else ever could. Wayne Gretzky was not the complete package that Howe was. Bobby Orr was not the physical marvel that Howe was. No one has or will ever match the physical prowess and scoring skills of Gordie Howe, and no one will ever match the influence on the sport that Howe had. Wayne Gretzky has always said that Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, and he is correct. Gretzky holds all of Howe’s former scoring records, and holds scoring records that will never be topped. But Howe did it for much longer and never showed the physical decline that Gretzky showed. They won the same number of Stanley Cups, four each, and they were at least comparable in the influence they could have on the game. I’d give Howe a very slight edge as the greatest total Hockey player ever, and that is only by a tiny, TINY margin.
Howe also lived for a long time after his playing career ended. He finally retired for good in 1980, and lived a long and fruitful life afterward. He worked for charities to counter degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s after his wife’s death in 2009. He was named to the Order of Canada, and was a living monument to the sport of hockey after his career ended. Unfortunately, he suffered from dementia towards the end of his life and had to live with his children in rotation. He suffered a bad stroke in 2014. He did recover and managed to see some good months with his grand children after. Unfortunately, even the toughest ones must go too. While staying with his son Murray, a radiologist in Toledo, OH, the great Howe couldn’t go any further. He died at his son’s home. No cause has officially been listed for his death, but as of now, what he and his family need are our prayers and respect.
Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player of all time. Unfortunately his time finally came to an end after 88 years of living here on earth. May God welcome him with open arms.