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Detroit and Gordie Howe are forever linked in our minds and hearts. Both epitomize several enviable virtues: Resilience, character, hard work and the ability to come back from adversity.

Gordie has naturally been on our minds a lot lately. News of his recent health setbacks has left many of us anticipating the end of his magnificent life. At 86 and partially paralyzed from a series of strokes, it’s likely that his time here is winding down.

When I learned of the death of Hall of Fame coach and former NHL player Pat Quinn on Nov. 24, my mind immediately went back to a simpler time, when I was a young boy and there were only 12 NHL teams. Eleven of those lived in fear of Gordie Howe.

When I was all of 10 years old, I had a minor run-in with Mr. Hockey. My best friend, who lived down the street from me, had a dad who often got tickets to Wings games, but only on Sunday nights. One Sunday, my friend and I went with his dad to a game against the Vancouver Canucks, a team early in its NHL tenure. Because we got there so early, we went down to ice level to watch the Wings during their pregame skate.

Emboldened by the pane of plexiglass separating the fans from the players, I said “hey, Gordie” every time Howe skated by us.

The first time I did that, he totally ignored us. The second time, he shot me a little sneer. And the third and final time I called out to him, he unleashed a prodigious quantity of saliva that landed just inches below my shirt.

How cool!

My friend and his dad were apoplectic and overjoyed about the fact that Mr. Hockey had singled me out as a worthy recipient of his spit and his scorn.

Gordie saw that they were having a good time at my expense and came over and grinned at me and said “no offense.” I hadn’t taken any offense at all. Mr. Hockey himself had actually talked to me.

During the game that night, Canucks defenseman Pat Quinn made the colossal error of elbowing Howe along the boards. Mr. Hockey then proceeded to beat the tar out of Quinn, a man who was 15 years his junior.

Pat Quinn never bothered him again.

It’s difficult for us to fathom the impact Gordie Howe has had on the game of hockey and on the city of Detroit. Howe, who played in five decades, put hockey on the map in Detroit and, it could be argued, the United States.

In the Original Six era, Montreal and Toronto were the only teams to receive daily press coverage from their hometown papers. Papers in other Original Six cities only wrote about their hometown NHL teams when they played games; there was no off-day coverage.

That all changed when Howe came to Detroit.

Howe was really the first complete hockey player. There were no sharper elbows in the league than those attached to Gordie’s arms, and there was no more foreboding facial expression than a sneer from Howe. He was the prototypical power forward, 40 years before the hockey press coined that term.

Gordie never scored 50 goals in a season but he routinely finished among the top point-getters in just about every season he played.

Combine his offensive production with the fear he struck in opponents’ hearts, and you can understand how dominating he was in his time. He scored 103 points as a 41-year-old in a rough and tumble league.

For a brief time after he retired, Gordie had some ill-defined position in the Wings’ front office. Gordie remembers that time as a period when the Wings gave him “the mushroom treatment. You know, they kept me in a dark room and every once in a while they’d throw some manure on me.” It was not a happy time for him.

When the opportunity arose for Gordie to play in the fledgling World Hockey Association with his sons, he leapt at it. Not only did he give the new league major credibility, he also played extremely well, first for the Houston Aeros and then for the Hartford Whalers.

When he finally hung up his skates he was 52 years old.

At 86 and addled by myriad health issues, he is not the Gordie Howe that we remember: Brawny and smart, but also possessed of a folksy, farm boy humility that endeared him to everyone who didn’t have to go into a corner with him.

When we talk about the NHL’s all-time best players, most people think Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr and any number of others. Gordie is often on that list, as he should be. Say what you will about the others, but for pure stamina and longevity (26 NHL seasons), Howe has it over all the others.

Just like the city he served so well for so long, he’s tough as they come.

Detroiters now and forever owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hockey.

Ted Montgomery is associate director of communications at the University of Michigan School of Education.

Write us: Letters@detroitnews.com

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