To millions of fans worldwide, Gordie Howe will always be "Mr. Hockey." To those of us who were fortunate enough to see him play, it's almost incomprehensible that Howe turns 85 on Sunday.
Howe, a kid from Floral, Saskatchewan, born on March 31, 1928, started skating when he was 4 years old, was playing in an organized league before he was 10 and had a tryout with the New York Rangers at 15. He didn't impress the Blueshirts, but a year later, a scout for the Detroit Red Wings discovered him and sent him to the team's training camp. Two years later, he was in the NHL -- he scored a goal in his first game with the Red Wings, on Oct. 16, 1946.
Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story
He went on to score 800 more regular-season goals, the last coming on April 6, 1980, in his 1,767th game. By that time, he was playing with sons Mark and Marty with the Hartford Whalers -- and taking a regular shift at age 52. Not even a litany of injuries that included more than 300 stitches, damaged knee cartilage, broken ribs, a broken wrist, broken toes, a dislocated shoulder, numerous scalp wounds, an ankle injury and a near-brush with death from a fractured skull in the spring of 1950 could stop him.
No. 9 was unlike any player in NHL history -- indeed, he's unlike any player in the history of team sports. No player in any sport has played regularly in five decades or after his 50th birthday. No one in NHL history could play offense and defense, score and check, and provide the kind of toughness that Howe brought to the game.
Nor has anyone done it for so long.
Howe had a perfect build for a hockey player -- a thick neck, sloping shoulders and incredibly strong wrists. He was described by various coaches as the game's smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker and the ablest puck carrier in the game. He was also tough and aggressive -- his elbows became the stuff of legend, and few if any players would challenge him. The "Gordie Howe hat trick," a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game, is named after him -- though Howe had only two such games in his career.
Howe's on-ice resume is unprecedented. He finished in the top five in regular-season scoring for 20 consecutive seasons. He broke Maurice Richard's NHL regular-season career record for goals in November 1963 when he scored his 545th -- then added 256 more. He retired from the Red Wings in 1971, but two years later fulfilled a dream when he joined the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association to play with his sons. They joined the Whalers in 1977 and were part of the organization two years later when the NHL absorbed four WHA teams, including Hartford, bringing Howe back for another season in which he played all 80 games -- the last few after turning 52.
Howe won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in a six-year span from 1950-55. He finished first in the League scoring race six times and won the Hart Trophy as League MVP on six occasions, was a 23-time All-Star Game participant, a First- or Second-Team All-Star 21 times and owns the NHL record for consecutive 20-goal seasons with 22, from 1949-71. He scored 100 points in a season once -- at age 40.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Inside the numbers: Gordie HoweBy John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist
No player before or since has had the combination of skill and toughness that Gordie Howe brought to the rink every night during his 26 NHL seasons. READ MORE ›
"You've got to love what you're doing," he said of playing hockey at an age by which his contemporaries had long since retired. "If you love it, you can overcome any handicap or the soreness or all the aches and pains, and continue to play for a long, long time."
But numbers tell only part of the story of Howe's impact on the sport.
In the three-plus decades since he hung up his skates (not counting a one-game, one-shift turn with the Chicago Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997), Howe has become a hockey icon and a living legend. He's always been accessible to fans, thousands of whom have memories of meeting one of the most humble and beloved athletes of all time. No one has been a greater ambassador for the sport for longer than Howe.
Even today, he's still in demand -- even as he battles his loss of memory. Howe will celebrate his birthday Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, watching his Red Wings play Chicago before having a family dinner. He will make an appearance at Detroit's home game against Colorado on Monday night, and is scheduled to appear at charity games in Calgary and Edmonton in the near future. Marty Howe, who now handles his father's schedule, says the public events are good for Gordie because they stimulate his brain and he "perks up."
You can argue whether Howe is the greatest player of all-time -- several of his NHL records have been broken over the years, some by Wayne Gretzky, who once said he "wanted to eat, sleep, look like and play hockey like Gordie Howe."
So a happy 85th birthday -- and many more -- to Gordie Howe. Gretzky may be "The Great One," but there's only one "Mr. Hockey."