Gordie Howe was more than one of the greatest players in NHL history. He was "Mr. Hockey."
He was an ambassador for the game, a man of the people. So many of us have Gordie stories whether family, friend, foe or fan: that time we met him at a game, an autograph signing or a charity event; that time he told a joke, crushed a handshake or posed for a picture, throwing up a mock elbow at the last second.
Even when he struggled with his health in recent months, Howe loved to be out in public. His son Murray, a radiologist in Sylvania, Ohio, would take him to the park, the store or the zoo. He took him to one last charity event in the Detroit suburbs. He took him to one last Red Wings game. He called it his "best medicine."
"He loves being 'Mr. Hockey,'" Murray Howe told me in October. "He loves making people's day."
Video: Nick Cotsonika on how Gordie Howe impacted Detroit
Gordie Howe died Friday at age 88, but the legacy of "Mr. Hockey" lives on in the record books and in all those stories and photos he left behind. He was an icon chiseled onto hockey's Mount Rushmore, but he never acted like it. He was tough and vicious on the ice, but warm and gentle off the ice, with a wicked, witty sense of humor.
Where he came from shaped him as a player and person. He was born in Floral, Saskatchewan, and grew up in Saskatoon during the Great Depression as the sixth of nine children. He learned to skate on icy roads, backyard rinks, the Hudson Bay Slough and the South Saskatchewan River. He built his legs carrying pails of water to a house with no indoor plumbing, and his hands and arms by carrying 90-pound bags of cement to work.
His accomplishments were legendary. He played his first NHL game at 18 and his last at 52. In between, he had 801 goals and 1,850 points in the NHL, plus another 174 goals and 508 points in the World Hockey Association. Six times each, he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player. Four times, he won the Stanley Cup.
Bobby Hull was 10 when he first saw Howe. It was 1949, and he waited with his parents in the sleet and rain outside Maple Leaf Gardens so he could rush through the turnstiles and claim standing room behind the blues. Toward the end of the first period, Howe stepped over the blue line and snapped those thick wrists, and Leafs goaltender Al Rollins fished the puck out of the net behind him.
"Robert," Hull's father told him, "when you can shoot the puck like that, you can play in this League."
Hull got Howe's autograph after the game on a pack of his father's cigarettes.
"My inspiration," Hull once called him.
Wayne Gretzky was 11 when he met Howe. It was 1972, and he visited Howe at a hotel before a banquet that night. A photographer from Gretzky's hometown paper in Ontario, the Brantford Expositor, asked for a picture. Howe took a stick and put the blade around Gretzky's neck. It became a classic, one of the images Gretzky has been asked to autograph most often in the years since.
"He was nicer and better and bigger when I met him than what I thought he was going to be," Gretzky once said. "For me, every time I look at the picture or sign the picture, it's nothing but great memories."
Gretzky became "The Great One," but his No. 99 honored Howe's No. 9.
"He is, he was, he will always be the greatest," Gretzky once said.
Howe had that impact on so many people, whether they played in the NHL or just dreamed of it, and it continued long after he retired. Howe never made the kind of money players make today. He was underpaid much of his career even in the context of his era. So after he retired, he made appearances for income and charity. The rest of the time, he just had fun being him.
Not long ago, I asked fans to send me their Gordie stories. I received many letters, and the Detroit Free Press published a few. If only we could tell them all.
Tim Jordan of Glastonbury, Conn., remembered being in an elevator with Howe when he was 15 or 16. His brother was a goalie in an event with Howe's grandson. Howe looked at Jordan's brother and cracked, "If my grandson doesn't score on you tonight, you will find out what made me famous." He pointed at his elbow with a smile.
Video: Darren Pang remembers hockey icon Gordie Howe
Kevin Wojtaszek of Hopatcong, N.J., remembered meeting Howe and his wife, Colleen, "Mrs. Hockey," at a Denny's in suburban Detroit. He waited until they had finished eating, then went over and introduced himself. Not only did the Howes shake his hand, they spent time chatting with him. "You know how they usually say you should never meet your idols because they'll destroy your image of them?" Wojtaszek wrote. "This wasn't one of those cases."
Mark Burns of Atlanta remembered his dad taking him to see Howe at the grand opening of a mall in Chicago. With traffic, it took them two-and-a-half hours to get there. They pulled into the lot right as the signing was ending and Howe was about to walk out of the mall. His dad said something to the security officers. "Next thing you know, I'm being picked up by this Hall of Famer and taking a picture between him and Colleen," Burns wrote.
Mary Beth Busto of Royal Oak, Mich., remembered going to Chuck Joseph's Place for Steak, a popular hangout after games. Word spread there was a Howe party in the private room. When Gordie and his sons Mark and Marty arrived, the patrons stood and cheered. Howe headed for the room and out of sight. But a few minutes later, he came back, beer stein in hand, and mingled with the people. "He could have been easily hidden and not been seen again," Busto wrote. "But that wasn't Gordie."
That was what made him "Mr. Hockey."