DETROIT –A teenage prodigy, Michigan’s all-time greatest pro athlete, a soft-spoken Hall of Famer and international sports treasure, Gordie Howe was one of a kind.
The greatest goal scorer of his generation – as well as being one of the toughest players from that era – died Friday morning in Ohio. He was 88.
Howe lived up to his nickname Mr. Hockey leading the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup championships during the 1950s and taking zero guff from anybody.
But two years ago the Red Wings’ all-time goal-scoring leader suffered a series of strokes that left him temporarily paralyzed and unable to eat. Soon after the first stroke, Howe traveled to Mexico where he underwent the first of two stem-cell treatments, which seemed to reverse the effects of the stroke.
Since then Howe returned to Joe Louis Arena twice, including his final visit three days before his birthday last March.
“He really hasn't been here since he had his stroke,” Mark Howe, Gordie's son and the Wings' director of pro scouting, said during that last visit. “So many people from the Detroit area and a lot of people here at the Joe, they reached out to him. It's a way of dad being able to wave and thank the people for all their kindness over the years."
Along with boxing legend Joe Louis and Tigers great Ty Cobb, Howe helped make up Detroit’s iconic sports trinity during the 20th century. He still holds franchise records for goals (786), points (1,809) and games played (1,687).
A proficient scorer and ferocious competitor, Howe anchored one of the greatest forward lines in league history. With his Production Line teammates Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel –and later with Alex Delvecchio –Howe became one of the most-dominant goal scorers in the history of the sport. He led the league in scoring six times, won the Hart Trophy, as the NHL’s most-valuable player, six times, and made 23 NHL All-Star Game appearances –the last at Joe Louis Arena less than two months shy of his 52nd birthday, in 1980.
Off the ice, Howe was very approachable, humble, funny, and down-to-earth.
“Just a gentleman obviously, loved hockey, loved his family,” former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “The things that stand out for me for sure is his love for the game and his passion for the game, but his love for his family, he’s got a very close, tight-knit family, and it’s always been about that. He’s part of the Red Wings’family, he’s a special, special man.”
The Red Wings still maintain locker stalls for Howe and Lindsay inside the team’s dressing room at JLA. Howe was a regular visitor to the room, chatting with players and coaches after practices or big wins.
“We were used to seeing Mr. Howe around the room, so not being able to see him every once in a while is going to be strange, it’s going to be different, ”Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “He was such a great man and touched a lot of people in this hockey world. He’s going to be missed dearly.”
Mr. Hockey played professionally for five decades, including his first 25 seasons with the Red Wings, from 1946-71. He still holds six franchise records, including most power-play goals (211) and game-winning goals (121). He also scored three or more goals in 18 games, a team-best that he shares with Steve Yzerman.
Howe retired following the 1970-71 season and went to work in the Red Wings’front office, but he returned to the ice when given the chance to play with his sons, Marty and Mark, with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.
Howe’s name still appears near the top of most all-time NHL records, including first in games played (1,767), second in goals (801), fourth in points (1,850) and ninth in assists (1,049).
Howe played seven more seasons, retiring for the second time after he had turned 52 years old. Remarkably, Howe combined longevity, scoring and toughness into his game well into his 40s when he produced 100-plus point seasons three times.
Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
So revered for his contributions to the sport, Howe has received many honors in his lifetime, including the prestigious Order of Canada. But having his son, Mark, join him in the Hall of Fame in 2011 was personally more significant.
Howe loved attending Red Wings games, whether it was in Detroit or in enemy territory, though, when it came to Mr. Hockey, there wasn’t a rink in the world that didn’t welcome him.
Though Howe only played in three NHL games at the Joe –representing the Hartford Whalers during the 1979-80 season –he had been a fixture at the 20,000-seat arena for years, where he enjoyed spending time greeting fans and talking with players.
“The first year I was here he came down into the locker room and introduced himself,” said Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who was a rookie in 2002-03. “It was pretty cool because I had never met him before, so to actually meet him in person, shake his hand and to finally meet Mr. Hockey was an unbelievable feeling.”
For the current group of players, Howe’s locker room visits were never short on entertainment but always long on nostalgia and humor.
“He was always close to a joke,” Zetterberg said. “So for me as a young guy then, not knowing that he was joking was funny. He always told me to shoot more often; if you don’t shoot you don’t score. Both he and Ted spent a lot of time here and that’s one of the things that makes it so special here. Those guys spend a lot of time in the locker room and unfortunately we hadn’t seen Gordie in quite awhile now, but Ted is still around.”
In Howe’s last autobiography, “Mr. Hockey: My Story”, he shares his thoughts on the life lessons that served him well during a long, illustrious hockey career. The book is available at bookstores throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Howe writes how his father Albert taught him “not to take dirt from anyone, because if you do they'll just keep giving it to you.” He didn’t take any dirt, especially from inexperienced younger players, which a young Stan Mikita learned.
“I went over to check Gordie Howe, and I think I went to lift his stick, and caught him on his cheekbone,” Mikita said. “He looks down and sees a little blood on the ice. He looked at me, and I’m kind of smiling I guess, and he points his finger at me. When he did that, I said, ‘Ah, get out of here you old bastard, you should of retired years ago. You’re too old for this game anyway.’
Eventually, Mikita, like so many others, found out about Howe’s long memory.
“About five, six or seven games after the incident and I had kind of forgotten about it,” Mikita said. “Gordie came skating back after we had shot the puck in the end zone, and I’m going in to fore-check. I cut across the middle and the next thing I know, I’ve got an awfully sore jaw. I’m rolling around and don’t know where the hell I (was).”
Until two years ago, Howe was remarkably fit and remained strong as an ox late into life while putting the finishing touches on his last book.
Slowing down, even though he had been diagnosed with dementia nearly four years ago, was not an option for the spry Howe. He enjoyed bass fishing and clamming on Long Island Sound, going to the driving range to hit golf balls or just raking leaves. Playing a full 18-hole round, however, had been out of the question for many years as his hands would get sore from the arthritis that developed in his wrists.
Shortly after his wife Colleen died in 2009, Howe began spending more and more time with his four children, who reside in different areas of the United States. While he liked staying with his daughter Cathy in Texas and the therapeutic effects that the warm climate offered, Howe still enjoyed his winter months with Marty in Connecticut, Mark in New Jersey, Murray in Ohio, and his best friend, Felix Gatt, in suburban Detroit.
In August 2014, Howe’s health took a deteriorating turn when lower back pain was to blame for volatile swings in mood and changes in behavior. On Aug. 22, he underwent out-patient spinal stenosis surgery in Toledo. From there he traveled to Texas where the family decided that Mr. Hockey would live out his final days before the stroke.
Gordie is survived by his younger sister Helen; children Marty (Mary), Mark (Ginger), Cathy (Bob) Purnell and Murray (Colleen); nine grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete, though Howe’s wishes were to be cremated with his ashes scattered on Bear Lake in northern Michigan.