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As Gordie Howe turns 88, he's still hockey icon

Legendary Hall of Fame member spending birthday with family

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Crowd serenades Gordie Howe

BUF@DET: Howe receives warm birthday welcome

3/28/16: During the 1st period at Joe Louis Arena, the crowd sings 'Happy Birthday' to Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, who turns 88 on Thursday

  • 01:48 •

MONTREAL -- The queue toward Canada customs at Montréal-Trudeau Airport on a March afternoon four years ago was dozens of passengers long. And there, shuffling patiently along with them, was Mr. Hockey, having arrived from Detroit.

It was then that an agent recognized Gordie Howe, who turns 88 Thursday; he plucked the legend and his son, Marty Howe, out of the line and breezed them into the country.

Soon we were on an escalator, up to a quiet area for a half-hour visit, when I broke the news:

"The Canadiens are not having a good season, Gordie," I began. "No playoffs. Chaos, pretty much. Total disarray."

With a twinkling eye and not a heartbeat of hesitation came the reply:

"Good!"

And then Gordie Howe burst into laughter.

It was the Detroit Red Wings icon's most recent visit to Montreal, for a collectibles show, and how could he not resist enjoying the misery of the Montreal Canadiens, who had been a thorn in his side, and vice versa, throughout his 26-season NHL career?

He would turn 84 in four days, and there I sat like the Gordie Howe fan that I am to this day, listening to him spin one yarn after another, every second or third tale spicy enough to scorch sensitive ears.

We talked about his hockey friends and foes, about his legendary battles with the Canadiens' Maurice "Rocket" Richard, and his respect for Jean Beliveau, a fierce competitor and dear friend.

Video: BUF@DET: Howe visits Wings ahead of his 88th birthday

Howe sifted through a stack of vintage photos I had brought for our chat, and he softly whistled "Holy [shoot]" at many of them.

There was one of him at close quarters with Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Johnny Bower:

"I once came by Johnny's net and was going to slash at the puck, but he put it in his own goal and I said, nice and loud, 'Thank you!'" Gordie said, chortling again.

There was another with Toronto's Teeder Kennedy, who Gordie scrapped with in one of his two Gordie Howe Hat Tricks: a goal, assist and fight.

"Does that include practice?" Marty asked, and maybe he was joking.

"I enjoyed that, the son of a [gun]," Gordie said through a grin of his fight with Kennedy. "He cut me for about four stitches with his stick and I told him, 'You have one coming …'"

We talked about his iconic signature, one of the most famous in sports, and about how it came to be.

It's like he knew, dating to his schoolboy days in Saskatoon, that he was destined for greatness. So he practiced three signatures, finally sliding them across a table to his sister, Violet. She chose the one he has signed thousands of times, the one that reads "Gordon Howe," the "G" looking more like an "S."

Howe will mark his 88th birthday Thursday in the company of his family, the cornerstone in his life.

His health is much more delicate than it was the day we met in Montreal in 2012. But he still loves the attention he's paid, and he enjoys nothing more than kibitzing with the small fry who know of, if not much about, a man who is a legend in every sense of the word.

On Monday in Detroit, Red Wings fans serenaded Howe with an early chorus of "Happy Birthday" when he was shown on the Joe Louis Arena scoreboard, attending a home game of the team that still is an important part of his life.

Red Wings players clearly were awestruck to be in his presence when he paid a pregame visit to the locker room, as were a few Buffalo Sabres who he mingled with briefly.

"I've spent most of my life following Gordie wherever he goes, about 10 feet behind, so I can hear everything people say," Marty said that afternoon in Montreal.

"Some are too afraid to go up to him. Some argue, 'That's him!' 'No, that's not him!' Then you get another type who say, 'Go up to him, you may never see him again.' I hear all this stuff. I know Gordie's honored by it."

Mr. Hockey was an honored guest at the Canadiens centennial game on Dec. 4, 2009. More than 21,000 fans nearly brought the Bell Centre roof down when he walked to center ice to introduce Beliveau, the Canadiens superstar and ambassador who died in December 2014.

In 2007, Howe was a radiant guest at a Bell Centre gala staged in Beliveau's name that raised more than $1 million for children's hospitals. Howe's last visit here before that was on May 31, 2000, for the funeral of Richard, perhaps his greatest rival.

It was up the road at the since-closed Forum that Howe scored his 600th NHL goal in November 1965. He earned a thunderous ovation for that, then was booed off the ice 2:26 later when he fractured defenseman J.C. Tremblay's cheek with one of his wayward elbows.

"But a couple of fans congratulated me," Gordie said, winking.

Mr. Hockey was born March 31, 1928, in tiny Floral, Saskatchewan, one of nine children of Ab and Katherine Howe.

From modest beginnings in the Canadian prairies, Gordie became the greatest all-round player of his generation and one of the finest to lace up a pair of skates.

He was an incandescent star with the Red Wings almost from the time he arrived in 1946 as an 18-year-old, scoring in his first NHL game. Howe went on to play 25 seasons with Detroit, one more in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers and six in the World Hockey Association.

You want numbers? He played 1,924 NHL games (regular season and playoffs) and 497 in the WHA. He finished at age 52 with 801 regular-season NHL goals and 68 in the playoffs, helping the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup four times.

Howe was an NHL All-Star 23 times. He was the League's top scorer in four straight seasons, from 1951-54, and again in 1956-57 and 1962-63, winning the Art Ross Trophy six times. He was a six-time recipient of the Hart Trophy as the NHL most valuable player and a record-setter across numerous categories, setting standards that were believed to be out of reach until Wayne Gretzky came along in the 1980s.

If there's an honor or award that has not been bestowed upon Howe, then it's not worth much.

His longevity was one of his unique characteristics; another would be his infamous, lightning-fast elbows that cleared the space for him to skate. He was especially brilliant on the Red Wings' famed "Production Line," skating with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay.

The only NHL player to compete in five decades, he returned to the NHL in 1979-80, seven years after having been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, to play with his sons, Marty and Mark Howe, with the Whalers. Gordie turned 52 with four games remaining in the regular season.

He has lost a step in recent years; dementia has taken much of his speech. He suffered a stroke in the autumn of 2014 and at the time was believed by many to be near death. But he rebounded, as he had numerous times as a player, and gained strength following stem-cell treatment in Mexico last year.

He is a hockey treasure, venerated everywhere he goes, though his public appearances these days are few and far between.

Four years ago, with Gordie lost in the stack of 8x10 history, Marty leaned in to speak of the private functions his dad would attend with the legends and the journeymen of his day.

"At an All-Star Game, these guys will all get together in a room where people can't get at them and tell all the stories about what Gordie did to them," Marty said. "If he was playing nowadays, he'd be thrown out of the League."

Gordie looked up with a grin, and he didn't disagree.

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