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'Mr. Hockey' turning 80 years young

by John McGourty
Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, born March 31, 1928, will celebrate his 80th birthday this Monday. Gordie Howe video retrospective
Gordie Howe will turn 80 years old this Monday, March 31.

How's that, you ask? Didn't he just retire a couple of years ago?

Yes, you are correct. Howe, then 69 years old, skated a single shift on Oct. 3, 1997, the opening night of the International Hockey League season, for the Detroit Vipers. He had hoped to play later that season for the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League, but the team was in playoff contention and couldn't afford to use a roster spot for a promotion.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Nobody would have been interested in seeing a 70-year-old man play hockey if it weren't for his incredible accomplishments during his prime. And  Gordie Howe's prime was better and lasted a lot longer than any other hockey player -- ever.

"The thing with Gordie, he was such a star and he was such an average guy," former teammate Pete Stemkowski said. "He didn't have any great demands. He just blended in. He was one of the guys. If we went out for a couple of cold ones after practice, Gordie just sat in the corner, like everyone else, and told stories. There was no pretense about him. That's what I admired so much about him. He was a team guy who wanted to win. He didn't think he was above anybody else."

Howe was born in Floral, Saskatchewan, a small unincorporated village located in the southeast city limits of Saskatoon in 1928. He joined the Detroit Red Wings in 1946 and retired from the Hartford Whalers in 1980. He was the last player from the 1940s to retire and tied with Bobby Hull, who played in the same final game, as the last NHL player from the 1950s.

Actually, Howe had a tryout with the New York Rangers when he was 16, but the team failed to see why he had been recommended. He got a tryout the next year with the Red Wings, who signed him and sent him to their farm team in Omaha for one year.

He had a decent rookie season in Detroit, at 18, with seven goals and 15 assists in 58 games while the Red Wings finished in fourth place for the second-straight season and were eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

  Jack Adams had managed and coached the Red Wings since 1927, but he stepped down as coach at the end of Howe's rookie season. He would remain as general manager until 1962. Tommy Ivan was hired as coach for the 1947-48 season and he put Howe on right wing with smooth-skating Sid Abel at center and feisty, rugged Ted Lindsay on the left wing, forming the famed "Production Line."

"When I played in Detroit on a line with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, we got used to each other, but it took time," Howe said. "And the more we played together the better we knew where each of us was on the ice. Also, the players must have enough time to interact with each other."

"The Production Line" was an incredible combination that remained together through 1952, when Abel was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Alex Delvecchio slipped between Lindsay and Howe on what came to be known as Production Line II. In 1969, Howe lined up with Frank Mahovlich and Delvecchio on Production Line III.

Howe showed improvement in his second season (44 points) as the Red Wings rose to second behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and then lost to them in the Stanley Cup Final. Howe improved again in his injury-shortened third season as Detroit won the first of its seven straight regular-season championships. But they again lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Maple Leafs.

But a dynasty was forming in Detroit, as the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1950 and four Stanley Cups in six years. This run coincided with Howe reaching physical maturity.

Howe was 6-foot, 205 pounds, one of the larger players in the NHL at that time. He was tall and lean with a farmer's hard muscles. He came from utter poverty and he wouldn't let anyone compromise his career on the ice.

Howe one-punched Maurice "Rocket" Richard to the ice early in his career and he crushed Bobby Orr late in his career. Howe was uncanny. He could deliver immediate, devastating retribution or he could let a slight go unpunished so long that the perpetrator forgot about it, until he found himself flat on his back when Howe found a situation that wouldn't compromise his team's chance of winning.

"I always said I believed in religious hockey, and that it is better to give than to receive," Howe told The Detroit Free Press. "I remember one guy said he tried to hit me all game, but all he saw was tape. When I was playing, a coach might say; 'You don't like so and so?' And I'd say; 'I don't like any of them out there. When the game's over, I like a lot of them, but on the ice is not a place to be liking people.'"

"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." -- Gordie Howe
There has long been the legend of the "Gordie Howe hat trick," a goal, an assist and a fight. That actually only happened once, in 1955, but he went two-for-three on many a night. Howe always insisted he was a clean player who would only retaliate for things that he thought shouldn't happen in hockey. In retirement, he has issued many calls for modern-day players to show more respect for each other.

"There is nothing worse than a guy with talent and a guy who has a little bit of size and a guy who got a temper," Stemkowski said of Howe. "So you didn't rattle him too much. Trust me if you did something to him, he won't forget. A couple times you might give him a shot and the next time he would come down and let a shot go and kind of follow through with that and (the blade) might tip your chin or something like that. He would tell (center Alex) Delvecchio shoot the puck in the corner, dump it in the corner and there was a defenseman there. He'd forget about the puck and that elbow would go right in the chops. He was a rough customer."

Howe had 35 goals and 33 assists in the 1949-50 regular season as Detroit beat the runner-up Montreal Canadiens by 11 points. Lindsay finished first in NHL scoring with 23 goals and 78 points. Abel was second with 34 goals and 69 points and Howe finished third, the only time in NHL history that linemates have finished 1-2-3 in scoring.

Howe wasn't available for the Stanley Cup Final in 1950, though. He suffered the most serious injury of his career on his 22nd birthday, March 31, 1950, when he attempted to check Maple Leafs captain Ted "Teeder" Kennedy into the boards. Kennedy saw Howe coming and stopped short as Howe hurtled head-first into the boards.

Howe suffered a fractured skull, and surgery was required to relieve pressure on his brain. There were fears he might never play again.

Those fears did not take into account Howe's indomitable spirit. He played in every Red Wings' game for the next five seasons, seven of the next eight and nine of the next 11 seasons. He missed six games in 1954-55 and six again in 1957-58. Howe led the NHL in scoring for four straight seasons, beginning in 1951, and five of the next seven.

In all, Howe won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring leader six times and won the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP six times. He was named to the NHL First All-Star Team 12 times and the Second All-Star Team 10 times.

"You've got to love what you're doing," Howe 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."

Those Detroit teams of the early 1950s were among the best in NHL history, and Adams called the 1951-52 team that won the regular season by 22 points and swept all eight Stanley Cup Playoff games the best team in NHL history.

Howe won his last Stanley Cup in 1955 when he had 29 goals and 33 assists in 64 regular-season games and nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Gordie Howe played a total of 1,767 regular season
NHL games, and his career spanned 32 seasons.
The Red Wings started to slip after 1955. Adams traded away troubled, but spectacular, goalie Terry Sawchuk and replaced him with the great Glenn Hall. The Red Wings returned to the Stanley Cup Final in 1956 but lost to the Canadiens in five games.

Adams was infuriated by Lindsay's leadership in trying to establish a players' association and Hall's support for Lindsay and traded them both, along with other players. Adams had long advocated trading away older players to make room for young legs, but his magic touch, so strong through the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, had departed.

Detroit lost the 1961 Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks, who had Glenn Hall in net. Adams retired after the following season, replaced by Abel. The Red Wings lost the next two Stanley Cup Finals to the Maple Leafs. They would lose the Final again in 1966 to the Canadiens.

That began a long slide in Detroit, which would not return to the Stanley Cup Final again until 1995.

Amazingly, and almost everything about Howe's career is amazing, he had his most productive season at age 41, in 1968-69, when he had 44 goals and 59 assists for 103 points. Two years later, chronic wrist problems forced his retirement at age 43. Even then, he had 23 goals and 29 assists in 63 games. The NHL began keeping plus-minus statistics in 1967-68. Tellingly, Howe's only year with a minus rating, minus-2, was his last. He joined the Red Wings' front office.

Two years later, old friend Bill Dineen, then the general manager of the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros, lured Howe out of retirement so that he could play with his sons, Marty and Mark. The trio led the Aeros to the WHA championship, the Avco Cup, and Howe was named the first WHA MVP. Howe played four seasons with Houston and two more with the WHA Hartford Whalers before Hartford was absorbed into the NHL in 1979.

Howe remained with the team to play one more NHL season, finishing his career at age 52, the oldest player in NHL history. His last game was April 11, 1980, when the Canadiens swept the Whalers from the Stanley Cup Playoffs' first round in three games.

Howe retired as the NHL's all-time scoring leader with 801 goals and 1,049 assists for 1,850 points in 1,767 regular-season NHL games. Actually, he had been the all-time leader since Jan. 16, 1960, when he passed Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Wayne Gretzky passed Howe on Oct. 15, 1989, so Howe reigned for nearly 30 years. Gretzky has held the record for 18 years. Three others are tied for the next longest reign, seven years, Richard, Nels Stewart and Howie Morenz.

Howe added 68 goals and 92 assists for 160 points in 157 Stanley Cup Playoff games. That gave him a total of 869 goals and 1,141 assists for 2,010 points in 1,924 NHL regular-season and playoff games.

Many people believed that Howe's scoring record would never be broken, but it was. There is a Howe record that may never be broken and that was finishing in the top five in scoring for 20-consecutive seasons from 1950-69. Howe also led his teams to the championship game in 15 of 32 seasons, another record unlikely to be broken.

Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. His No. 9 was retired by the Red Wings, Whalers and Aeros.

His unofficial title, "Mr. Hockey," is his forever.

Happy Birthday, Gordie!

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