Gordie Howe is celebrating his 82nd birthday on March 31, and even though Gordie hasn't laced them up in 30 years, he remains a legendary character, sort of like a "real-life" Paul Bunyan.
In fact, it was Gordie who once said that all the stories about him made him out to be Paul Bunyan, a fictional character who was a giant and a lumberjack with mythical power.
Gordie was a giant during his playing days, which lasted from 1946-71 with the Detroit Red Wings, 1973-1979 in the World Hockey Association and one year in Hartford in the NHL in 1979-80.
There is the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick," when a player scores a goal, gets an assist and is involved in a fight, although NHL records seem to indicate that Gordie Howe had just one in his career. He won six Art Ross trophies as the NHL's leading scorer and six Hart trophies as the NHL's MVP. Gordie also was on four Stanley Cup winners during his 25-year career with the Red Wings.
But all the honors and accolades pale in comparison to his greatest hockey achievement -- playing with his sons Mark and Marty, first with the Houston Aeros of the WHA and then in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers in Gordie's final season in 1979-80
Howe had retired after 25 seasons with the Red Wings in 1971, but he always dreamed of the day where he would play an NHL game with his sons. It was an impossible dream, yet it was Howe's wife, Colleen, who pushed the idea. Only she knew it could not be in the NHL because of age requirements and the NHL drafting procedure.
"I always refer to that as my greatest accomplishment and excitement," Howe said of getting on the ice in a Houston Aeros uniform with his sons in 1973. "Let's put it this way, I don't remember what year it was, but my wife, Colleen, who is a very imaginative young lady, took the junior club in Detroit (where Mark and Marty were playing at the time) and I joined the juniors and we played against the Red Wings for the March of Dimes. We raised a lot of money and we had 17-18,000 in the stands. It was a bad year for the Red Wings, but it was a happy occasion. I was hoping at that time it was for real."
Howe took a job with the Red Wings after he announced his retirement in 1971. The problem was that he felt the team was not properly utilizing him. New York Islanders General Manager Bill Torrey offered Howe a deal to coach the expansion team in 1972-73, but he turned him down.
Howe really didn't have any intentions of returning to the ice. He retired because of a wrist injury but circumstances had changed. The WHA's Houston Aeros wanted Mark and Marty, and Aeros General Manager and coach Bill Dineen was an old teammate from the 1950s in Detroit so he knew the Howe family quite well. Dineen's assistant Doug Harvey was a great NHL defenseman with Montreal and the Rangers who played against Gordie in the 1950s and 1960s.
The old NHL players hatched an idea.
"That reality came about when Bill Dineen and the Aeros came over and drafted Marty and Mark. Very few people know the fact who started the idea of the draft was Colleen," said the proud dad. "She got sick and tired of hearing people saying it's too bad they had to wait until Mark and Marty turned 21. They said, 'Why would you do that? Is that an agreement between the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association) and American born kids?' She decided to take it upon herself, called the gentleman in L.A. (Gary Davidson) who was running the WHA and he said, as far as I know there was nothing. She said thank you very much and in conversation she dropped a hint and said between the OHA and the WHA and he said I don't think there is."
That got Gordie thinking. Was there a chance that his "underage" son could turn pro and could he skate with them?
"Bill and Doug Harvey, they walked streets and called the guy and got the same answer," said Howe. "The guy said isn't it funny, you're the second person to call me. With that in mind, they drafted Mark and Marty off the list and my name got thrown into the hat later on."
Gordie Howe made his "professional" debut with his sons Mark and Marty in 1973 at a preseason doubleheader exhibition featuring the Aeros, Bobby Hull's Jets, the Chicago Cougars and the New York Golden Blades at New York's Madison Square Garden. Gordie scored on his first shift against Winnipeg.
Gordie Howe returned to hockey at the age of 45 with a surgically repaired wrist. In 70 games, Gordie had 31 goals and 69 assists for 100 points. At the age of 46, he won the WHA's scoring title. It was a remarkable comeback for Howe, who led the Aeros to a WHA title with his sons aboard.
The WHA wasn't the NHL both on the ice and off the ice: two of the final round games between the Aeros and the Chicago Cougars were played in the Randhurst Ice Arena next to the Randhurst Mall in suburban Mount Prospect, Ill., because the Cougars home arena in Chicago, the International Amphitheater, didn't have ice after a presentation of Peter Pan in the building and the arena's officials didn't bother to prepare for the finals.
The Randhurst Ice Arena's capacity was a mere 2,000.
The following year, the Aeros won a second championship, beating the Quebec Nordiques. The Winnipeg Jets denied Houston a third straight championship in 1975-76.
Howe and his sons signed with the New England Whalers in 1977 and played two seasons there in the WHA. In 1979, Howe returned to the NHL as a member of the Hartford Whalers along with his son, Mark. Howe played in the 1980 All-Star Game, which was held in Detroit, and received a thunderous ovation from the crowd.
Marty Howe would join the Hartford Whalers and played six games for the team, making the Howe family the only father-son-son combination ever to appear on ice together as teammates in NHL history.
Gordie retired at the age of 52 following the 1979-80 season. Amazingly he played in all 80 Whalers games scoring 15 goals and assisting on 26 others and played in three playoff games.
The Howe signings spurred the NHL to change its entry draft and allowed 18-year-olds to be drafted starting in 1974. The signings and getting on the ice with Mark and Marty were the biggest accomplishment of Gordie Howe's storied career.