Nearly 399 months had gone by from the time Gordie Howe made his NHL debut in a Red Wings’ sweater in 1946.
Thirty-one years later, Howe made his return to the city where he was still revered as a hockey icon. But this time, the man who had played in 1,687 games for the Red Wings, winning six scoring titles, six MVP awards and four Stanley Cup titles, returned in an enemy sweater.
On this day, Jan. 12, 1980, Mr. Hockey made his first trip into the new Joe Louis Sports Arena – as it was called way back then – in downtown Detroit.
Accompanied by his son, defenseman Mark, and the Hartford Whalers, Howe helped defeat his old team on that chilly Saturday evening along the Detroit River.
Mark Howe admits that he doesn’t remember much about this particular game, other than to say, “I was so focused on the game and trying to win.”
While Gordie Howe didn’t figure in the scoring, Mark Howe did, helping the Whalers to a 6-4 victory. He chipped in with two assists for the Whalers, who snapped a nine-game winless streak that night. Hartford finished the 1979-80 season with a 27-34-19 record.
Details of his points are sketchy, but Mark does recall trying to get his dad involved in the offense.
“I do remember trying to do something to get Dad a point in that game,” recalled Mark Howe. “On this occasion, I specifically remember trying to look for my Dad, which was so out of character for me.
|The Howes took the opening face-off against the Red Wings' Jean Hamel (5), Dennis Polonich (8) and Bill Hogaboam on March 12, 1980 at Joe Louis Sports Arena. |
“Obviously, I do remember that you have a little more adrenaline in you. The personal thing of it all, I knew how important it was to Dad. It was a game, it was important, but let’s get through the first shift. I was focused on getting through the distraction of trying to appreciate it for my Dad.”
Speaking of the first shift, something that isn’t lost among the Howes – or many Red Wings’ fans – is the opening face-off from a game two months later when Whalers coach Don Blackburn sent Gordie, Mark and Marty out to center ice at JLA.
“What I recall the most is the picture of Marty, Dad and I,” Mark said. “Marty and I both played defense, but as soon as the puck was dropped (Blackburn) wanted Marty to skate off. But there was no way that was happening.
“Last summer, the Whalers had a reunion, and we were up there in New England and we were talking to Donny, who wanted Marty to switch right away. But Marty wasn’t going to switch. It’s a business and it’s serious, but as you get older you learn to appreciate little things like the three of us skating together for that shift. … I know how much it meant to my Dad.”
For Marty, playing on a line with his dad and brother, was big for another reason: he only played in six NHL games that season before suffering a fractured left arm in a minor league collision with Chris Nilan.
“There’s a photo that shows the face-off and you can see the left winger is standing up on the bench waiting for me to come off. All my dreams went to hell, when the puck was dumped into the corner, but it was fun anyway.”
Mark Howe’s first assist in the 6-4 win came in the second period on a goal by Jordy Douglas that gave Hartford a 4-1 lead. An NHL rookie that season, the younger Howe also assisted on Ray Allison’s goal that gave the Whalers a 5-2 edge in the third.
Reed Larson, Errol Thompson, Pete Mahovlich and Jean Hamel each scored for the Red Wings. Dan Labraaten had two assists and Mahovlich also added a helper.
Three weeks later, Gordie Howe returned to Detroit for the 23nd All-Star Game held at JLA, where he received a thunderous, standing ovation from the appreciative Red Wings’ fans.
Gordie Howe appeared in all 80 games for the Whalers that season, compiling 15 goals and 26 assists, his lowest single-season NHL totals since 1948-49 when he only played in 40 games.