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NHL Centennial

Gordie Howe makes NHL history on Jan. 2, 1980

Mr. Hockey becomes only player to skate in five different decades

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

For all of Gordie Howe's accomplishments during his 26 NHL seasons, the one that may never be equaled came when he performed the simplest task of any hockey player on game night -- stepping onto the ice.

When Howe took his first shift for the Hartford Whalers against the Edmonton Oilers at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton on Jan. 2, 1980, the 51-year-old became the first NHL player to play in five decades.

Howe got an ovation from Oilers fans when he was presented with a plaque commemorating his unique achievement, which came in his second and final NHL game in Edmonton. It was one of the 80 games he played during his 26th season in the League and his 32nd in major professional hockey (including six seasons in the World Hockey Association, but not counting a one-game, one-shift cameo with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997).

"One of my goals was longevity; I guess I've pretty much got the lock on that," he told Sports Illustrated not long after the game, which was played 37 years ago Monday.

Howe retired in 1971 after 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. He made a comeback in 1973 with the Houston Aeros of the WHA, and in 1977 moved to the Whalers. In 1979 the Whalers were one of four teams added to the NHL, putting Howe back in the League. 

"Hartford was the icing on our cake," he told the Hartford Courant in 1980.

Howe's legs in his fifth decade weren't what they'd been for most of the first four. However his head, heart and elbows remained in excellent working order. 

Among the Oilers on the ice that night was an almost-19-year-old center named Wayne Gretzky, who had idolized Howe since he was young and would go on to break many of his offensive records. Gretzky had a first-period assist; Howe didn't make the scoresheet.

Howe finished the season with 15 goals and 41 points, with all but five of his points coming at even strength. He also was a plus-9, a pretty neat feat on a team that finished with 73 points in 80 games and had a minus-9 goal differential. He retired after the season owning NHL records for games played (1,767), goals (801), assists (1,049) and points (1,850)

Gretzky went on to surpass Howe's totals for goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857). But to No. 99, No. 9 will always be No. 1.

"Gordie Howe is the greatest player who ever lived," he said in 2015. "There's not even a question about it."

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