Video: Gordie Howe, 'Mr. Hockey,' enjoyed five-decade career
No, Gordie Howe's greatest gift was something much more human: his ability to put starstruck people at ease, be they world leaders, captains of industry, fans stunned speechless or just kids he'd bump into on the sidewalk, with a self-deprecating sense humor and an aw-shucks playfulness, both cornerstones of his mischievous personality.
In 2012, on his final visit to Montreal, where he played some of his greatest hockey, Howe was having the kind of fun that he'd never deny himself, spinning one wonderful yarn after another.
"Kids enjoy it when I do this," he said with a grin, his tongue pushing roughly half his teeth out of his head.
"I wish," Howe's son Marty said with a sigh, rolling his eyes, "that you wouldn't do that."
"How about this, then?" Gordie said, making it look like he was pulling half a thumb out of a ham-sized fist, both of his thick wrists locked from decades in hockey's trenches, his fingers meandering in directions that weren't intended.
Games: 1,767 | Goals: 801 | Assists: 1,049 | Points: 1,850
Mr. Hockey, as he was known to all, used those gnarled hands to make NHL history, finishing in the top five in League scoring for 20 consecutive seasons (1949-50 through 1968-69). He became the first NHL player to reach 1,000 points and would retire from the Hartford Whalers in 1980 as the League's all-time leader in games played (1,767), goals (801), assists (1,049) and points (1,850).
As a youngster growing up in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky idolized Howe; it's fitting that Gretzky, The Great One, would eclipse the records that had been put virtually out of reach by the legend who became his close friend.
Howe was born in tiny Floral, Saskatchewan, on March 31, 1928, soon before the Great Depression, one of nine children raised by his parents, Ab and Kate. The family moved to nearby Saskatoon when Howe was an infant, and he fell in love with hockey when he laced up his first pair of skates, a battered pair of boots and blades that were dropped in the Howe kitchen in a sack of odds and ends by a destitute woman seeking a dollar or two.
Howe was 8 when he arrived in organized hockey, his spine weakened by a calcium deficiency. But his tremendous devotion to exercise and summers spent working for his father, a laborer, built the powerful physique that he would use to his complete advantage throughout his illustrious career.
A tryout in Winnipeg with the New York Rangers at age 15 ended unsuccessfully, with Howe yearning for home, and he was signed by the Detroit Red Wings the following year. He attended school in Galt, Ontario, practicing with Detroit's junior team there, then turned pro at 17 with Omaha of the United States Hockey League.
Howe made his NHL debut as an 18-year-old on Oct. 16, 1946, scoring once and fighting twice. His reputation for toughness was built early and tested often. In time, Howe learned to stop looking for trouble but never backed down when it knocked on his door; a crushing, legendary, multipunch dismantling of Rangers heavyweight Lou Fontinato in 1959 proved once and for all that it'd be best to not get under Mr. Hockey's skin.
"[Howe] knows how to shade the rules," an unnamed Chicago Black Hawks player said in a 1964 "Sports Illustrated" profile of the Red Wings right wing. "You do something to him, he won't let on you got to him. But when you come out of the next scramble, you've got four or five stitches you don't know how you got."
Indeed, Howe spent 1,685 minutes - the equivalent of 28 full games - in NHL penalty boxes, four times earning 100 or more penalty minutes in a season.
"I play religious hockey," Howe once joked, maybe. "It's better to give than to receive."
Another time, he was hurrying along the Detroit team doctor who was attending to him after he'd been carved open by an opponent's high stick.
"You don't need gloves, just stitch me up," he told the doctor. "And don't go very far because the guy who did this will be coming in soon."
If Howe's legendary elbows and cement fists were plain to observe, his power and strength were deceptive. Canadian writer and broadcaster Peter Gzowski, in a December 1963 Maclean's magazine profile during Howe's 18th NHL season, described him as a less-than-fearsome physical specimen, "a hero for our time [who] doesn't look very heroic. … The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk."
Howe's great friend and rival, Montreal Canadiens center Jean Beliveau, had his own view of Mr. Hockey, offered in his 1994 autobiography "My Life in Hockey":
"He could come up behind you, gently slip his stick under your armpit and effortlessly lift you right up off the ice," Béliveau wrote. "Trying to muscle Gordie off the puck in a corner was akin to wrestling with a telephone pole."
As a rookie in 1947, Howe would be installed by coach Tommy Ivan on a Red Wings line with center Sid Abel and left wing Ted Lindsay. The "Production Line," named for its offensive output with a nod to Detroit's automotive industry, was the most feared trio of its day. The Red Wings were the NHL's powerhouse of the late 1940s and early 1950s, winning the Stanley Cup four times in six seasons between 1950 and 1955, with Lindsay, Abel and Howe ranking one-two-three, respectively, in League scoring in 1949-50.
But Howe's career nearly ended in that season's playoffs; he fractured his skull when he and Toronto Maple Leafs captain Ted "Teeder" Kennedy collided and he crashed into the corner boards of the Detroit Olympia.
While emergency surgery relieved the pressure on Howe's brain, many feared not just for his career, but his life. The mettle of the man was proven when he returned to the Olympia ice in street clothes not quite a month later, celebrating the Red Wings' Stanley Cup victory, then roared back the following season to win the first of his six NHL scoring titles, finishing with 86 points, 20 more than Canadiens rival Maurice "Rocket" Richard.
Howe thrived with the Red Wings for nearly two more decades, even as the team would be stripped for parts by management and he felt less appreciated near the end. He retired in 1971, settling uneasily into a figurehead front-office job he didn't enjoy.
Ultimately, the lure of skating with sons Mark and Marty for the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros was too great to pass up, so Howe returned for an MVP season in 1973-74 and three more in Houston before playing two years for the WHA's New England Whalers and a final season, at 52, in the NHL with Hartford.
Howe and his wife, Colleen, whom he had met in a Detroit bowling alley when he was 21, raised Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray, with Colleen managing the family's finances, often at odds with Red Wings management. The two were inseparable until Colleen's death in 2009.
In retirement until his failing health took him largely out of the public eye, Howe was a massively popular figure wherever he went, especially in Detroit, where he was a larger-than-life hero to anyone who crossed his path. He was truly in his element in the company of kids, never having lost the little boy in himself.
He always had time for fans, signed thousands of autographs and was involved in endless charity causes. And as was the case in 2014 with the death of Beliveau, everyone had their own Mr. Hockey story when Howe died on June 10, 2016, at 88.
Bobby Orr met Howe for the first time when the former was 11 or 12, the Red Wings icon having come to Orr's hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario, to do a little fishing.
"Gordie asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a hockey player," Orr said following Howe's June 2016 funeral. "Gordie looked at me and said, 'Well, when you get up there watch my elbows,' " he said with a laugh. "And all this young fan could say was, 'OK, Mr. Howe.'
You couldn't invent Gordie today. If he was playing with today's rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn't take liberties with him. The way he played, he'd do real well."
Lindsay, Howe's fellow "Production Line" wing, said, "Gordie always was worried that he'd not make the team [at training camp]. … The guys would just laugh at him. He didn't do that to be smart. He did that because he was concerned about his ability, to be good enough to make the team. He meant that sincerely. I call him the greatest hockey player to ever play the game."
Gretzky, who had pangs of guilt as he erased his boyhood idol's erstwhile indelible records, cherished both a friend and an inspiration, a man whose presence remains strong with him to this day.
"Two things separated Gordie from everyday players," Gretzky said before Howe's Detroit funeral. "One, Gordie never thought he was bigger or better than anybody else. He always wanted to prove that he was. He never said to anybody, 'I'm the best player, I'm the No. 1 guy.'
"And he always had a need to perform each and every game and practice. … He had a definite ambition that he was going to be the best player every night and every year. That's how he lived. He never changed. …
"The greatest player ever," Gretzky said of Howe. "I say this all the time. Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe, pick who you think is better. I happen to be a little biased. I was a forward, so I'll take Gordie."
Somewhere down his remarkable road through hockey, Howe considered his own purpose and distilled it into two wonderful sentences:
"You've got to love what you're doing," he said. "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."
For more, see all 100 Greatest Players