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Hockey Legend Gordie Howe Dead At 88

Gordie Howe, long-time player for the Detroit Red Wings and a legend in the National Hockey League, has died at the age of 88:

Gordie Howe, one of the greatest and most durable players in the history of hockey, who powered his Detroit Red Wings teams to four Stanley Cup championships and was 52 years old when he officially retired from playing the sport, died on Friday, the Red Wings announced. Howe — Mr. Hockey to the sports world — was 88.

No other details were immediately released. Howe, who received a diagnosis of dementia in 2012, had a stroke in 2014 that impaired his speech and movement.

Wayne Gretzky was celebrated as the Great One for his scoring prowess. Bobby Orr was recognized as hockey’s incomparable defenseman. But Howe could do it all, and he kept at it after his hair had turned silver and a grandchild was born.

“If you were ever going to make a mold for a hockey player with five strengths — offense, defense, durability, toughness and versatility — you wouldn’t look past Gordie Howe,” Scotty Bowman, hockey’s most successful coach, with nine Stanley Cup championships, once said. “In my estimation, he was the best ever.”

Gretzky idolized Howe as a young player, wearing his No. 9 in amateur leagues and donning red and white socks to copy Howe’s Red Wings attire.

“There’s one Gordie Howe, and it’s as simple as that,” Gretzky said when he closed in on Howe’s career points record in 1989. “I’m not ever trying to replace him.”

Howe played professional hockey for 32 seasons, most of them with the Red Wings. Playing at right wing, Howe scored with subtle maneuvers when the slap shot had yet to become a favorite offensive weapon and defensive play was strong. He handled the puck magnificently, setting up teammates with precise passes. He inflicted crushing body checks and well-placed elbows or stick-ends on opponents who incurred his ire.

There was hockey’s traditional hat trick — three goals by a player in a single game — and what became known as the Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight.

At 6 feet and 205 pounds, Howe was relatively big for his era and had a tailor-made body for hockey, with long arms, a strong torso and outstanding balance.

Playing before helmets were required, he endured numerous injuries and some 500 stitches in his face. He almost died during the 1950 playoffs when he crashed into the sideboards attempting to check Ted Kennedy, a star forward with the Maple Leafs; Howe sustained a fractured skull and required emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

By the time he retired for the second and final time in 1980 as the oldest player in N.H.L. history, Howe had set records for most seasons (26), games played (1,767), goals (801), assists (1,049) and points (1,850). He won both the Hart Trophy as the N.H.L.’s most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top points scorer six times.

Orr, who starred with the Boston Bruins, marveled at Howe’s blend of supreme talent and combativeness.

“He has the reputation of being a tough player and using his elbows and so on,” Orr told USA Today in 1999. “But Gordie Howe can play any way you want him to play. You want to play tough, you play tough. You want to just play, you play. He didn’t shy away from anything. He was the total package.”

Howe was named a first- or second-team N.H.L. All-Star 21 times. The four Stanley Cups he helped the Red Wings win came in 1950, ’52, ’54 and ’55, when the N.H.L. was a fiercely competitive six-team league. After playing for Detroit from 1946 to 1971, he had seemingly retired. But after two seasons off the ice, he teamed with his sons Mark, a future Hall of Fame defenseman, and Marty, a left wing, for six seasons in the World Hockey Association and in a final year with the N.H.L.’s Hartford Whalers.

(…)

Gordon Howe was born on March 31, 1928, in Floral, Saskatchewan; his family moved to nearby Saskatoon when he was a few days old. He grew up there as the fifth of nine children, playing hockey on frozen ponds with makeshift equipment, the prairie winds raging and temperatures far below zero.

“We had to play with a tennis ball instead of a puck,” he once recalled. “The ball would get so hard we’d have to get new ones all the time. A woman next door used to warm them up in an oven for us.”

He honed his physique by doing construction work with his father. At age 14, he lifted five 86-pound bags of cement at one time while building sidewalks.

Howe signed with the Red Wings organization at 16, spent two years in the juniors and minors, then made his N.H.L. debut at Olympia Stadium in Detroit on Oct. 16, 1946, scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs goalie and future Hall of Famer Turk Broda.

Howe never equaled what had been the single-season goal-scoring record of 50, set by the Canadiens’ Richard in 1944-45, falling one goal short eight seasons later. But he broke Richard’s career goal mark of 544 in 1963.

Howe retired in 1971 to take a front-office post with the Red Wings, presumably intending to remain off the ice. But he was given little to do, and he returned to the game in 1973 when the World Hockey Association was created, gaining an opportunity to play with his teenage sons, Mark and Marty, in a $2 million, multiyear deal with the Houston Aeros.

Howe scored 174 goals in the W.H.A., playing with his sons through four seasons with Houston and two with the New England Whalers. In 1979-80, the three Howes played together in the N.H.L. when the New England team, having been renamed the Hartford Whalers, joined the league after the dissolution of the W.H.A. Howe scored 15 goals and had 26 assists in his last N.H.L. season.

At the age of 69, he took a one-shift turn on Oct. 3, 1997, for the International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers to become hockey’s only six-decade professional.

Howe could be a brutal player and was adept at retaliating for a slight when the referee was not looking.

“It’s a man’s game,” he once said. “You have to be tough to survive. I learned right off that throwing the first spear was the best way.”

I have admittedly never been a  major hockey fan, but I was at least sufficiently aware of what goes on in the game to know who Howe was and his significance to the game. Condolences to Howe’s family and hockey fans everywhere on the passing of a legend.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    As a Red Wings fan, this hits close to home. Although we knew he had some major health issues in recent years.

    It is an interesting coincidence that the arguable greatest of all time in hockey was taken from us so shortly after Ali’s death.

    RIP, Mr. Hockey …

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  2. @Franklin:

    It is an interesting coincidence that the arguable greatest of all time in hockey was taken from us so shortly after Ali’s death.

    On the day Ali is being buried no less.

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  3. CB says:

    Sometime in the late 90’s, I went on a family vacation that ended up at the Henry Ford museum. And there, walking around looking at plaques with his family, was Mr. Hockey. I couldn’t bring myself to go up to him, but I’ve never forgotten my tiny brush with hockey royalty.

    Gretzky may have had the brain, but Howe was the total package. They don’t call it a Gordie Howe Hat Trick for no reason. Great player, great man.

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  4. Mikey says:

    Howe scored 15 goals and had 26 assists in his last N.H.L. season.

    He had 41 points…on an NHL team…when he was 52.

    Yeah, they don’t build ’em like Mr. Hockey anymore.

    He was a consummate gentleman and great ambassador for the sport off the ice, too. No less a player than Wayne Gretzky called Howe “the nicest man I ever met.”

    RIP, Mr. Hockey. Not just us Red Wings fans will miss you.

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  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    @CB:

    For my 14th birthday, my grandparents surprised me with tickets to a Redwings match that night. Halfway through the 2nd period, everyone around us started freaking out. In came Mr. Hockey himself, and sat 3 rows in front of us. He and his entourage stayed for 30 minutes, then left.

    I, too, chickened out at getting his autograph.

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