Before sports became glamorized and specialized, before the biggest stars did the flashiest work, Gordie Howe did it all. He did it with magical hands and pointed elbows, with incomparable toughness and irresistible kindness.
There’s a reason Mr. Hockey stood alone, and stood longer than anyone, spanning 32 seasons across two leagues and multiple generations. He endured longer than anyone could have imagined, past a normal retirement date, past an ordinary mortality date, all the way to Friday, when he passed away at the age of 88.
In a sport without the cross-country appeal of others, in an era when the NHL had six teams, Mr. Hockey’s fame extended well beyond Detroit. He’s the Red Wings career leader in goals, points, games and goodwill, guiding the team to four Stanley Cup titles, and his No. 9 sweater is the most famous in our city’s history.
Think about this. There’s no Mr. Football, no Mr. Basketball, no Mr. Baseball, at least not in unofficial American lore. Each icon in those sports stood for something different, maybe the greatest hitter, maybe the greatest scorer.
When a legend passes, we often say we’ll never see another like him. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. It’s true of Muhammad Ali, whose funeral Friday was commemorated by millions. It will be true of Howe, not for social reasons, but as the ultimate symbol of gracious perseverance.
Gracious? Oh, yes, even after he’d complete a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game — he’d often apologize to whichever poor sap suffered the broken nose. Some of it was legend — Howe actually only fought 22 times in a career that went from 1946-80 before he retired at the age of 52 — and some of it was unequivocally astounding.
Wayne Gretzky eventually passed Howe as the NHL’s career leader with 894 goals, and the Great One defined scoring and playmaking prowess. Howe finished with 801, and played the most games in NHL history.
Among Howe, Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux and others, you can debate the game’s Greatest of All Time. I suppose you even could debate the Wings greatest, with Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom ruling for 22 and 20 years, respectively. But I’d say Howe wins by his sheer force of presence and fearsomeness.
There’s no debating the moniker that befit Hockey’s first family — Mr. Hockey, Mrs. Hockey (wife Colleen, who passed in 2009), sons Mark, Marty and Murray, and daughter Cathy. Mark and Marty followed their father into the sport, and all became caretakers of his history and his health.
Two years ago, it appeared the end was near for Howe, as he suffered from the effects of stroke and dementia. Eulogies were written and people mourned. But did anyone believe a guy who scored 23 goals in the last of his 25 seasons with the Wings in 1971 would slip quietly away?
His family took Gordie to Mexico for revolutionary stem cell treatment, and it bought time, and even bought him a farewell. He was honored at a Joe Louis Arena birthday celebration in March, his voice silenced by the ravages of nature, but the memories so strong.
Revered and feared
Red Wings players long have spoken in awe of the man they’d see in the halls of the Joe, stopping to chat or share a joke. It was part of the allure of the storied franchise, as old greats like Howe and Ted Lindsay sat on stools in the locker room and spun tales to the young players.
When you met Howe, you were struck by two things. He wasn’t as big as you’d expect, about 6-foot, 205 pounds when he played. And there wasn’t a hint of the meanness he could show on the ice. He had charm and wit, captured in one of his famous quotes: “I’m bilingual: English and profanity.”
If someone can be revered and feared at the same time, that was Howe, famous for sticking up for teammates and never forgetting to avenge an on-ice transgression. He once said he’d rather set up a goal than score one, and he’d rather rough up an opponent than anything. It was the hard work, the dirty work, the type of work that connected him with Detroit and with a sport where players proudly counted up stitches and missing teeth.
Howe never could leave the game, and the game never left him. He actually played one more time in 1997, taking a shift with the minor-league Detroit Vipers at the age of 70. Some thought the publicity act was unbecoming for a legend, but I actually believe it enhanced his tale. It introduced the story to a generation that might not have fully understood the breadth and depth of his career.
No one will forget the humble man from Saskatoon who scored a goal in his first game with the Red Wings in 1946, and scored 15 his final season with the Hartford Whalers in 1980.
No one elevated a sport for a longer stretch than Mr. Hockey, the man who earned the title by doing it all, in ways no one ever did, in ways no one ever will.