DETROIT – Asked about his NHL longevity, Mr. Hockey paused to reflect.
“I think you stay awake some nights and think, ‘How the heck did it ever happen?’ ” Gordie Howe said. “I think it was my love for the game.”
One day before he turns 80-years-old, Mr. Hockey was honored in a special pre-game ceremony at center ice prior to the Red Wings’ game against the Nashville Predators on Sunday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena.
Howe was greeted by a standing ovation as Jim Gregory, NHL senior vice president presented with a framed jersey, displaying his rookie number (17) and the official score sheet from his first NHL game – in which he scored his first NHL goal.
“Fans are not dummies, and Detroit has really good, smart fans; they saw the way I reacted,” Howe said. “I told my son, Marty, ‘You have to respect the people when you play; they pay your salary and you have to respect the management and go play your buns off.”
Wings general manager Ken Holland presented Howe with a newly updated Red Wings varsity jacket, commemorating the jacket he received when he signed with the Red Wings back in October 1946.
Howe recorded 46 points in his last season in the NHL in 1980 -- at the age of 52 -- with the Hartford Whalers.
“They left my fanny on the bench too long,” Howe joked. “But I felt really good there in mid-season.”
When he retired, Howe owned the NHL career marks for games played (1,767), goals (801), assists (1,049), and points (1,850).
Minutes after the presentation, National Anthem singer Karen Newman, along with the fans, serenaded Howe with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
A special birthday cake -- in the shape of a white No. 9 -- was presented, the likes of which have not been seen at Joe Louis Arena.
“The cake measures seven-feet long, three-feet wide,” said chef Mike Berend. “It is actually composed of 27 individual sheet cakes put together. It was made with a case of eggs (about 10 dozen), 100 pounds of flour and 50 pounds of sugar. This is the largest cake I’ve had to make in 14 years of working here.” The cake was shared with Howe as well as 1,200 fans in the Olympia Club and on the suite level.
Throughout the game, fans had the opportunity to view special birthday wishes from former hockey greats and celebrities, including CBC personalities Ron MacLean and Don Cherry, San Jose’s Jeremy Roenick, and ESPN’s John Buccigross and Barry Melrose.