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NHL Centennial

Gordie Howe scores final NHL goal

Gets No. 801 for Whalers against Red Wings in last game

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

He was 52 years and eight days old, a human marvel who wasn't merely playing in the world's greatest hockey league, but producing at an impressive rate.

And on April 6, 1980, at the Hartford Civic Center, with 800 goals to his NHL credit, 14 of them in this 1979-80 season, Gordie Howe would strike one last time.

How fitting that Mr. Hockey's final regular-season goal would come against the visiting Detroit Red Wings, with whom he had broken into the NHL as a teenager in 1946-47 and played for a quarter-century, his trip to iconic status beginning in the Motor City.

And it was perfect that Howe would score his 801st and final NHL goal, and earn his 1,049th and final assist, against Red Wings goalie Rogie Vachon.

It was against Howe on Feb. 18, 1967, that Vachon, a late-season call-up by the Montreal Canadiens from the Central Hockey League's Houston Apollos who wasn't even yet classified as a rookie, famously made his first NHL save, stoning the Red Wings superstar on an early-game breakaway at the Montreal Forum.

Less romantically reported is that midway through the first period that night, a 3-2 Canadiens victory, Howe would score the first goal that the teenage Vachon surrendered in the NHL, sitting on him as an exclamation mark with the red light aglow.

Thirteen years later, Howe was on Vachon's doorstep again. If the now-veteran goalie had yielded his first NHL goal to Mr. Hockey, he was about to give up Howe's 801st and last in the League, coming in Mr. Hockey's 1,767th and final regular-season NHL game. It was scored in Howe's 80th game for the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, a season that would see him score a most respectable 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists).

At 11:25 of the second period, with teammates Ray Allison and Gordie Roberts having done some of the spadework, Howe circled out from behind the Detroit net to shovel a backhand past Vachon for the home team's third goal, on their way to a 5-3 victory against the Red Wings.

Mr. Hockey had been in the NHL for a decade when Roberts was born in Detroit, named for the Red Wings legend. He was a rookie with the Whalers in 1979-80 when he earned an assist on his boyhood hero's final regular-season goal, and on Dec. 9, 1992, he would become the first United States-born player to skate in 1,000 NHL games.

Howe's 1,850 points would be an NHL record unchallenged for nearly a decade, atop the all-time list until Wayne Gretzky overhauled it in 1989 while playing for the Los Angeles Kings.

Mr. Hockey had two more points in his stick, a goal scored and an assist earned during Hartford's three-game Stanley Cup Playoffs Preliminary Round exit against the Canadiens.

His 801st goal capped a remarkable season, begun at age 51; it came in his fifth decade as a professional player, an unprecedented, even ridiculous feat.

Howe scored No. 801 almost 34 years after he'd scored his first, that one coming against Turk Broda of the Toronto Maple Leafs, assisted by Adam Brown and Sid Abel, on Oct. 16, 1946, in the season opener at Detroit Olympia.

Howe would play 32 pro seasons, including six in the World Hockey Association that included a 102-point season headed toward his 48th birthday with the Houston Aeros. His ledger when he retired for good in 1980 showed 2,421 games played in the NHL and WHA, totaling 2,358 points (975 goals, 1,383 assists).

"They ought to bottle Gordie Howe's sweat. It would make a great liniment to rub on hockey players," cracked King Clancy, the former Maple Leafs player and executive and NHL referee.

Surrendering Howe's final regular-season NHL goal would be a badge of honor for Vachon, who during two seasons with the Red Wings made some Detroit history of his own.

Vachon was in net for the Red Wings' final game at the Olympia, a 4-4 tie against the Quebec Nordiques on Dec. 15, 1979, and the first game played at Joe Louis Arena 12 nights later, on the short end of a 3-2 decision against the St. Louis Blues.

He was the first Red Wings goalie to win at the Joe, a 4-2 victory against the New York Islanders on Dec. 30, 1979, and also their first to earn a shutout, a 4-0 win against the New York Rangers on Jan. 9, 1980.

Three months after the shutout, Vachon was in the Red Wings net when Mr. Hockey scored his last goal, the 1967 breakaway save at the Forum lost in the mists.

"I don't know if I closed my eyes when he shot, but I stopped him," he recalled of that famous save. "And it kept me in the League for 16 years."

Vachon often was asked about that save leading up to his Hockey Hall of Fame induction on Nov. 14.

Surrendering Howe's 801st and final goal never came up.

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