This is a difficult day. Muhammad Ali’s life is being celebrated in Louisville as this is written. Ali was truly a giant of our time who transcended sports. Then the news came that we have also lost Gordie Howe – “Mr. Hockey” – as well.
Howe was the force behind the Detroit Red Wings dynasty of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a team that won the Stanley Cup four times and made the Cup Final three additional years between 1948 and 1956. Howe was the right wing on one of hockey’s most famous lines – the Production Line – with center Sid Abel and left wing Ted Lindsay.
The Red Wings were not able to sustain that greatness, but Gordie was a constant in their lineup, helping to sell the seats in the Olympia through all of his seasons. An arthritic wrist forced his retirement in the spring of 1971, at which point Gordie was given a title, but not much work to do. Later, he would refer to it as being given the “mushroom treatment.” Asked what exactly that was: “They stuck me in a little room in the basement (of the Olympia) and every now and then would open the door and shovel some (fertilizer) on me.”
He spent the next two seasons on the sidelines. The World Hockey Association – a challenger to the NHL – got started in 1972. The WHA thought that one way to win the battle for talent with the NHL was to draft 18-year-old players. The NHL observed a 20-year-old draft then. In the summer of 1973, a former teammate of Gordie’s, Bill Dineen, was trying to sign Howe’s two older sons: Marty, who was 19 at the time; and Mark, who was 18.
Dineen (whose son Shawn is a pro scout for the Predators) really thought the two Howe boys could help his Houston Aeros get over the top. They had lost to the Winnipeg Jets in the second round of the Avco Cup Playoffs the previous season. Dineen’s move would turn out to benefit all hockey fans.
When Dineen asked about the possibility of signing Marty and Mark, Gordie asked: “How about the old man, too?” After Dineen picked his jaw back up off the floor, the deal was done.
Thus began a tremendous addition to the Howe legacy. He would be his sons’ teammate for the next seven seasons: four with Houston (two WHA championships) and three with New England/Hartford, the last of those in 1979-80 in the National Hockey League (after the WHA-NHL merger). That final NHL season enabled a last go-round for Gordie, especially with the All Star Game played in Detroit.
Marty was a good defenseman who played almost 650 games combined between the WHA and NHL. Mark Howe was so good that as a 16-year old, he played on the U.S. Olympic hockey team that earned the silver medal at Sapporo in 1972. He played over 1,200 WHA and NHL games, first as a left wing, then as an All-Star defenseman, who made the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. He now is the Detroit Red Wings’ director of scouting.
Mark tells great stories about his dad, which I am sure will be recounted many times over the next few days as we celebrate Gordie’s life. Mark’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech includes a special one.
Maybe the best comment Mark has made on his father came about when he was asked how his dad would do in today’s NHL. To paraphrase: “He wouldn’t get to play much, he’d be suspended!”
That might be overstated, but during that final NHL season, Kings’ rookie J.P. Kelly lined up Gordie for a big body check and didn't realize they were in front of the penalty box. At that time, there was no glass there. Gordie tumbled head first into the box, and sheepishly emerged. In a humanitarian/protective gesture, Head Coach Bob Berry did not give J.P. another shift that night, realizing (from personal experience), that Gordie was likely to get even at some point.
Perhaps, but for those of us who were lucky to see him play, I will always remember his strength, his grace, his humility and his willingness to talk to anyone. All who came across him held him in awe. Bobby Orr revolutionized the way the game was played, but Gordie Howe was the best player for the longest time, thus “Mr. Hockey.”