Hockey great Gordie Howe dies at 88
Gordie Howe, a legendary figure in Detroit sports and widely acclaimed as one of the greatest hockey players in history, died shortly before 8 a.m. Friday, the Red Wings confirmed. He was 88.
Howe died surrounded by family at his son Murray's house. He suffered a series of strokes in recent years.
Howe combined strength and mobility, brute intimidation and prolific scoring, a blend of skills rare in the NHL, which he performed with transcendent ability.
A winner of four Stanley Cups, six scoring titles and six MVPs, Howe is third in NHL history with 1,850 points, including 801 goals and 1,049 assists, despite playing in a defensive era.
He tallied 20 or more goals in 22 straight seasons, 1949-71. He ranked among the top five scorers 20 times.
Both Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, sometimes heralded as the greatest hockey players in history, say Howe topped them.
Scotty Bowman, winner of nine Stanley Cups as a coach, said, “If you could make a mold for a hockey player it would be him. I never thought there was another player close to him.”
In 1980, at the age of 52, Howe became the oldest player in NHL history, and the only to play in five decades. He also is the only one to play with his sons.
“When winter arrived, it always just felt like time to put on my skates,” Howe said in his autobiography, “Mr. Hockey, My Story.”
“It didn’t matter whether I was a kid or a grandfather. The feeling never changed.”
In 1947, Howe first played with Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel on what sportswriters in the industrial city called “The Production Line.”
They drove the Red Wings to eight consecutive first-place finishes through 1955, with Alex Delvecchio replacing Abel. Those teams won four Stanley Cups in six years.
Such was Howe’s greatness, however, many noted his humility and humanity, the love story that was his marriage, the accomplishment of raising fine children and the construction of a hockey facility in St. Clair Shores that helped jump-start Michigan kids in the Canadian game.
“I like to think of myself as a family man first and a hockey player second,” Howe said.
His most triumphant playing days occurred as the city reached the apex of its commercial and industrial might in the 1950s. Howe is an icon of the era.
Among the most-feared men in NHL history, Howe amassed 1,685 penalty minutes.
“It was all about letting the other guy know not to take any liberties with me,” Howe wrote in his autobiography. “The math was simple in my mind. Respect equals space.”
From humble beginning to glory on the ice, much of his life seems the stuff of myth.
Growing up in the Canadian portion of the Dust Bowl, poor nutrition complicated the development of his spine. But a concerted program of exercises and chores, such as hauling large bags of cement for his father, strengthened him.
By age 15, Howe was 6-feet tall and 200 pounds, large, even for a man, in the 1940s.
Hockey consumed Howe from the time he was a small boy.
A neighbor, seeking money for milk for her family, sold Howe’s mother, Katherine, a gunnysack filled with household goods. When she dumped the contents on the floor, a pair of adult skates fell out.
They were well-used.
At 15, the Rangers invited Howe to a camp in Winnipeg. But he said he was so shy, his homesickness left him less than fully engaged.
The next summer, the Red Wings invited him to a camp in Windsor, and long-time general manager Jack Adams signed him.
Large and bustling, Detroit nearly overwhelmed him, Howe said. But he lived with Lindsay and Marty Pavelich in a boarding house near Olympia Stadium run by Ma Shaw. At a bowling alley in the neighborhood, he met his future wife, Colleen Joffa.
By 1950, the 22-year-old Howe had begun to make a huge mark in the NHL.
But in the first game of the playoffs, Howe suffered a near-fatal injury. Pursuing Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy to prevent him from receiving a pass, Howe careened headlong into the boards.
He sustained an injured eye, broken cheekbone, broken nose, fractured skull and a severe concussion. His brain swelled, and that night, a surgeon drilled a hole in his skull to relieve pressure.
A few days later, in street clothes and walking a bit unsteadily, Howe joined his teammates on the ice for the Stanley Cup celebration.
Two seasons later, after the 24-year-old Howe tallied 86 points and 47 goals as the Red Wings ran the table in the playoffs, sweeping the Maple Leafs and Canadiens to become the first NHL team with a perfect record in a postseason.
But not all was happy for Howe during his career in Detroit.
After winning the Cup in 1955, the last for the Red Wings for 42 years, Adams traded eight players, almost half the roster, including a transaction with the Blackhawks so lopsided it appeared to fans that owner Bruce Norris intended to help half-brother, James, who owned lowly Chicago.
“To this day, his reasons for blowing up our championship squad defy explanation,” Howe said.
For years, Howe also relied on word from Adams he was the highest paid player in Detroit, and probably the NHL.
He was anything but.
But with the personal betrayal still largely unknown to Howe, for two years in the late 1950s, Lindsay secretly and meticulously tried to form a players’ union. Howe’s eventual decision not to participate helped thwart the effort.
“Looking back, it’s easy to say now that we should have shown more resolve when the owners tried to crack us,” Howe said. “I also accept that the situation might have turned out differently, if I had taken on a larger leadership role.”
It was not until several years later that veteran defenseman Bob Baun arrived in Detroit in the mid-1960s and told Howe his $45,000 salary was not the highest on the roster and far from the top in the NHL. Howe approached Norris and demanded $100,000.
Norris, Howe said, immediately consented.
Howe retired shortly before the 1971 season, and received a showcase job in the front office, which he detested.
He came out of retirement two years later to play with his sons, Mark and Marty, for the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, winning the MVP award and championship his first season.
When the WHA folded in 1979 with Howe playing for Hartford, the franchise was accepted in the NHL and, at age 51, he returned to the league where he started 32 years earlier, for one last season.
He played in all 80 games.
Gordie Howe is survived by his three sons, Mark, Marty and Murray; a daughter, Cathy Purnell; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.