Seeing as he was one of the most penalized players in the NHL during his time, it’s not a surprise that Gordie Howe was involved in his share of fights. Detroit’s #9 was not shy about dropping his gloves and squaring off with an opponent. But fighting in the All-Star Game? That’s unheard of. But Gordie did that too, and he and his fighting partner remain the only players to ever trade punches in the NHL All-Star Game.
It happened on November 3, 1948, in only the second All-Star Game in league history. The game was played at Chicago Stadium, and for the second straight year, a team of “All-Stars” faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Howe was just 20 years old and in his third season for the Red Wings, but he’d already secured a reputation for toughness. His willingness to scrap spawned what was known as the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” – game with a goal, an assist, and a fight. Though Gordie had far fewer of the Gordie Howe Hat Tricks than his fans and opponents thought, he threw his muscle around quite a bit.
Ice hockey has always been bruisers, but what made Howe different were his skills as a passer and skater. Usually, a player could either be tough or a scorer, but he couldn’t be both. Howe’s unique talents and formidable physical presence helped him dominate front line opponents who couldn’t match his athletic prowess.
The Maple Leafs had a defenseman named Gus Mortson, a player so known for his orneriness that he was dubbed “Old Hardrock.” At a shade under 6 feet and 200 pounds, Mortson was a mass of muscle and flesh that he gladly threw into opposing skaters. He and teammate Jimmy Thomson, also a defender, were known as the “Gold Dust Twins”, and they bullied opposing skaters who drifted into their end of the ice. It was a large reason that Toronto lifted the Cup six times in the ten years between 1942 and 1951. The Leafs were a gritty and unyielding club.
The All-Stars struck first, getting a goal just seconds into the 2nd period. The Leafs retaliated and knotted the score a few minutes later and shortly after the temperature started to get heated on the ice. Howe and teammate Ted Lindsay led a charge into the Leafs’ zone only to be met by Mortson and his buddies. Howe and Mortson soon locked eyes and then the pushing started near the boards. Before anyone knew it, Gordie and Gus were locked in an embrace and swinging away at each other. The much larger Howe (6’1 and 210 pounds of solid Canadian) got in several good shots and Mortson held on. Finally, the two were separated and escorted to their respective benches. At that time, there was only one penalty box in most arenas – which meant that opponents sitting side-by-side often continued their confrontation after being sent to the box. This time, with Howe and Mortson still shooting daggers and exchanging how-do-you-do’s, officials ordered them to their benches. The crowd was so charged up and the players so angry that police officers were ordered to stand guard of Howe and Mortson.
The All-Stars added two more goals that period, one by Lindsay, as they took a 3-1 lead. Howe and Mortson both received 5-minute penalties. The All-Stars won the game by that same score and the more than 15,000 fans in Chicago had a story to tell – they’d seen a fight break out in an All-Star exhibition game. At the time, some of the players and coaches felt there would probably be a bit of fighting in the All-Star Games, since animosity naturally existed among many of the players. But gradually over the years, the players started to treat the game as a chance to showcase their skating, passing, and shooting skills. They were reluctant to risk injury by playing aggressively.
Howe and Mortson continued to have their battles – the Red Wings and Maple Leafs met in the Stanley Cup finals in ’48 and ’49, and Mortson was in the league until 1967. For one brief season they were teammates on Detroit, but they were never pals.
When Howe eventually hung up his skates after 32 years in the NHL and World Hockey League he had logged more than 1,600 penalty minutes – or 28 full games worth of sitting in the box. “Mr. Hockey” had also earned another nickname: “Mr Elbows”, and in the All-Star Game in ’48 he showed why he had both of those nicknames.