Green: Gordie Howe showed us how legends are made

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Gordie Howe played hockey with a gliding stride, a marksman’s touch — and flailing elbows.

And when he felt it was necessary, he played with the shaft of his stick.

Off the ice, Howe, who died at the age of 88 on Friday, offered a droll bit of humor, plenty of wisdom — inspirational guidance.

On it, however, everything seemed effortless.

Especially the fighting.

He was motivated by revenge — with the stick, elbows and fists. All while playing peerless hockey.

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Take one night in 1959.

On one side was Rangers defenseman Louie Fontinato, regarded at the time as the heavyweight champion of the NHL. He was tough. He was strong. He was large. He could fight.

On the other side, Howe.

It all started when Red Wings legend Red Kelly and Rangers Hall of Famer Eddie Shack were involved in a scrum behind the New York net. Howe went to Kelly’s aide and Fontinato entered the fray with a wild punch.

Sticks and gloves were dropped, and Howe and Fontinato went at it.

“You could hear Howe’s punches land on Louie, whomp, whomp, whomp, like he was chopping wood,” said the late Gump Worsley, then the Rangers goaltender.

It ended with Fontinato bloodied and defeated, his nose battered and out of place.

“The first punch was what did it,” Howe said. “It broke his nose a little bit.”

Howe, by the way, also scored two goals that night.

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Timing is everything

It was during those moments when Howe provided the hockey world a glimpse of the man who became a legend.

Sure, Howe was a scorer — he finished with 1,850 points and 801 goals.

And while intimidation was part of his game, so, too, was sportsmanship.

Bobby Baun, a rugged defenseman, once hammered his stick into Howe at Olympia Stadium. Baun played for the Maple Leafs, the rival most hated by the Red Wings.

But it just wasn’t nice to aggravate Howe.

Howe, patient as always, waited for his chance. Late in the game, he checked Baun behind the Toronto goal. With his right elbow snug against Baun’s head, Howe rode his adversary around the backboards and flush against the glass partitions.

And when it over, Baun’s head was gashed, dripping blood.

But this was hockey, and Howe and Baun later would became teammates in Detroit.

“Bobby Baun turned out to one of my best friends,” Howe once said. “He was a very kind-hearted man.”

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All about respect

Early in his career, Howe and Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard engaged in a bitter rivalry.

The Red Wings and Canadiens disliked each other, so fighting was common. Even for Richard, a player with an ego who resented Howe’s talent.

They fought only once, during Howe’s rookie season in 1946.

In many ways, they were opposites — as players and people.

Richard was fiery and flamboyant and skated with flourishes. His eyes would light as he zoomed in on goaltenders. And his emotions spilled over.

Howe was quiet, most times. His skating style was smoother than Richard’s, and he was much more subtle.

One night at Olympia, Howe surpassed Richard as the NHL’s career goals leader with No. 545 — against the Canadiens. The drama couldn’t be better.

The fans went nuts, and the Red Wings jumped over the boards to smother Howe with hugs and congratulations. The Canadiens sulked at their bench — their “Rocket” had been surpassed by an enemy rival. You could see it and feel it from the pressbox.

All of them sulked — except one.

Jean Beliveau, always dignified, skated up the ice to shake Howe’s hand.

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Something special

After playing 25 seasons, Howe took a nondescript, do-nothing position in the Red Wings front office.

“I was given the mushroom treatment,” Howe once said. “You know what I mean — where they keep you completely in the dark and every once in a while they come in and throw manure on you.”

Howe grew tired of that role. He soon would be 45, and still had an itch for the sport he loved.

So, he put his skates back on and headed for a second career with the Houston Aeros in the new World Hockey Association. He also would be a teammate to his two sons — Mark and Marty.

They played well together.

“Look, Marty and Mark and Gordie, they’re all fighting out there,” said Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife and mother to the boys.

And now, as we celebrate Howe’s life, he’s still out there.

The toughest, most skilled, most memorable and most humane player for the ages.

Jerry Green is a former News columnist