On a sad emotional day in which they’re paying tribute to Muhammad Ali after burying him, another legend is gone. Gordie Howe passed away this morning peacefully at the age of 88.
Known as Mr. Hockey, Howe became one of the all-time greats starring for the Detroit Red Wings where he spent the first 25 years of a long career that included a stint in the World Hockey Association (WHA) with the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers after coming out of retirement. His final year came in ’79-80 with the expansion Hartford Whalers where he starred alongside son Mark Howe.
Originally from Floral, Saskatoon, Howe signed with the Red Wings as an 18-year old after playing one season with the Omaha Knights of the USHL where he tallied 22 goals and 26 assists with 53 penalty minutes in 51 games. In his rookie season of 1946-47, he totaled seven goals and 15 assists with 52 penalty minutes. By Year Three, Howe had improved to nearly a point-per-game registering 37 points in 40 contests with Detroit. At that point, he was already playing with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay on the famed Production Line. The Red Wings made consecutive Stanley Cup Finals in ’48 and ’49 where they lost to the Maple Leafs. Howe put up eight goals and three assists in 11 playoff games during the ’49 postseason.
At the age of 23 in ’51-52, Howe led the NHL in scoring for his first Art Ross Trophy with 86 points (43 goals, 43 assists) in 70 contests to win the first of a then record six Hart Trophies as league MVP. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup going undefeated by sweeping the Leafs and Canadiens. The Production Line combined for nine goals and 18 points. Abel left following 1952 and was replaced by Alex Delvechhio.
After being upset by the Bruins in 1953, the Red Wings won back-to-back Cups in ’54 and ’55. Each went seven games with Detroit prevailing over the Canadiens. In the repeat, Howe set a playoff record with 12 points in the Stanley Cup Final, finishing with a record 20 (9-11-20) with 24 penalty minutes. Sadly, that was the final time Howe won a Cup. Detroit would go without one for 42 years until a new generation of Winged Wheel stars featuring Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Nick Lidstrom went back-to-back in ’97 and ’98.
Despite some more great seasons from Mr. Hockey which included his sixth and final Hart in ’62-63 when he totaled 38 goals and 48 assists for 86 points with an even 100 penalty minutes in 70 contests, the Red Wings fell short of another championship. By then, the cast had changed. Lindsay was sent packing in 1957 when he teamed with Doug Harvey to form the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Glenn Hall also was traded with Lindsay to the Blackhawks. Hall went onto win three Vezinas and a Conn Smythe.
The Wings still reached the Stanley Cup Finals four times between ’61 and ’66 thanks to a cast that featured Howe, Delvechhio, Norm Ullman, Parker MacDonald and Terry Sawchuk. But they never won again. Even with a 41-year old Howe posting a career high 103 points for the only time he hit the century mark in ’68-69, by then the Wings were no longer a playoff team. They missed the postseason in four of Howe’s final five seasons. At age 43, he had 23 goals and 29 assists totaling 52 points in ’70-71. His last NHL season until he returned one final time as a 52-year old with Hartford in ’79-80.
After being retired for two years due to a wrist problem, Mr. Hockey came out of retirement signing with the Houston Aeros of the WHA to play with sons Mark and Marty. It was a dream scenario. A father getting the chance to play with his sons. At 46, Howe still had it reaching 100 points in ’73-74. He hit triple digits again two years later. He spent four years in Houston before moving to New England. The Whalers lasted two years with the fading WHA before joining the NHL.
The Red Wings reached a handshake agreement with Hartford not to put in a claim for Howe. Had they, he would’ve returned to the only team he knew in the NHL because it was the last team he played for. Astonishingly, Mr. Hockey played in all 80 games with the Whalers finishing with 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points. He added a goal and helper in a three game playoff before calling it a career.
Poetically, 1980 was the same year Wayne Gretzky entered the league with the Edmonton Oilers. One of the most popular photos is one a young Gretzky took with his boyhood idol. As fate had it, Gretzky would go to break most of Howe’s records including passing him for most goals in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky would shatter the record for assists with his 1,963 by itself more than either Mark Messier’s point total (1,887), Jaromir Jagr’s (1,868) and Howe’s (1,850).
Before Gretzky, Howe had the most goals and points along with most Harts. The Great One won a record nine league MVP’s including eight in a row. However, along with Howe’s WHA totals of 174 goals and 334 assists for 508 points, Mr. Hockey still holds the professional record for most combined goals with 975.
Howe totaled 1,767 NHL games with 801 goals, 1,049 assists and 1,850 points while amassing 1,685 penalty minutes. He was as tough as they come. In an old school era where elbows and cheap shots were more common, Howe always paid back opponents. Known as Mr. Elbows, he would go after opponents for retribution. Built strong going six feet and 205 pounds, Howe would drop the gloves taking on all comers. He popularized the Gordie Howe hat trick which still is known today as a goal, assist and fight.
The Hockey News listed Howe as the third all-time greatest player behind Gretzky and Bobby Orr in a top 100 Players list all-time in 1998. Howe was put ahead of Mario Lemieux. If you asked my Dad, he’d put Orr and Howe 1-2 followed by Gretzky. He grew up in that old era when the game was tougher and it was harder to score. Howe never once scored 50 goals. However, he didn’t miss many games.
Speaking to how tough he was, Howe overcame a stroke on October 26, 2014. He made a great recovery and lasted almost two more years. Number 9 will never be forgotten. One of two legendary 9’s in hockey along with Maurice “Rocket” Richard. His rival during the 50’s when the Red Wings and Canadiens faced off. No doubt they’ll have a moment of silence for Mr. Hockey before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup between the Penguins and Sharks on Sunday.
When the NHL returns for 2016-17, emotions will run high in Hockey Town, USA. Another legend gone but not forgotten.