BlueshirtsUnited.com spoke with New York Rangers legend Rod Gilbert on Friday to discuss the life and career of Gordie Howe, "Mr. Hockey", who passed away earlier in the day at age 88.
BSU: What are your thoughts about Gordie Howe's passing today?
RG: It's a sad day for his family and for the larger hockey family. It's a big loss for hockey, and I hope he gets all the recognition he is due for everything he did for this great game of ours. As far as I am concerned from when I played against him there was nobody better than Gordie Howe. Later Wayne Gretzky and some others may have eclipsed some of his numbers, but in my time there was nobody better, no better all-around player, than Gordie Howe.
BSU: In your opinion, what made him such a great all-around player?
RG: He was the most complete player, and, in my opinion, the best player by far at that time. There were other great players--Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Andy Bathgate--and they were all very skillful; but Gordie was more than just a skilled player. He had all of it. He could shoot with both hands, he was ambidextrous! He'd come in on a goalie and switch hands before shooting just to confuse the goalie, didn't have to use a backhand, could always go with either forehand! And his shot was so powerful. It was amazing how talented he was. Oh what a great passer he was, too. Gordie was also terrific defensively was a physical specimen--he was the most muscular and strongest player in the league. Then there was his toughness which is legendary. Everybody feared him because he was mean out there on the ice. Easily the most complete hockey player I have ever seen; and at that time if I had to pick one player to start a team, it would be Gordie Howe.
BSU: What was it like to play against Gordie Howe?
RG: Me and Jean Ratelle and Dave Balon, we were the Rangers best line, and we were young and played against Gordie Howe's line all the time. How do you think we fared against him and his line--Alex Delvecchio and Sid Abel? Not too good, right? It's a good thing they didn't keep the plus/minus in those days! Plus I always was looking out for Gordie, had to keep my head up with him out on the ice.
BSU: Did you ever have a physical encounter on the ice with Gordie Howe?
RG: (Laughing) I have vivid memories of playing against Gordie Howe and as a matter of fact my fourth game in the NHL in Detroit at the Olympia I found myself unconscious on the ice on my back. They woke me up with the ammonia and two of my teammates dragged me off the ice, sliding me back to the bench. I look at the linesman and he comes by and says "Number Nine!". That was Gordie Howe. I never saw him, but he elbowed me in the side of the head, no penalty, and if the linesman had not told me I wouldn't have known who hit me. He was that quick and that sneaky. So I said to myself that I couldn't let that happen...I mean, I was just starting out, so I'm going to try and get him back. Then every time we played against him he's taking out somebody else and I'm thinking that I'm not so ready for this! I thought maybe I'll wait til he gets a little older! Never did attempt anything, though.
BSU: He couldn't have been too popular at Madison Square Garden...
RG: The fans actually really admired him, and rightfully so, he was such a great player; but let me tell you a story. We had the toughest guy in the league, the Rangers did, at that time, Lou Fontinato. Lou made a mistake to go after Gordie Howe once--and Gordie didn't have a lot of fights, he was physical and elbowed people and things like that, but he didn't want to break his hands because he was such a great scorer. So Louie is pounding him and when Gordie had enough of Lou Fontinato he reorganized his face! Word of that got circulated around the league and no one wanted anything to do with Gordie Howe!
BSU: What was Gordie like away from the ice?
RG: Off the ice he was a wonderful person.He was so much fun and really loved his family. What a great person he was off the ice. I am sure his family will miss him dearly.