With the recent passing of Gordie Howe’s wife Colleen, it is terribly sad to see a man suffer so much from the loss of his beloved partner. Gordie always expressed his gratitude for her business savvy, but especially for the way she raised their four children when he was away so much during his 25 years with the Red Wings.
Colleen Howe’s own accomplishments include being arguably the first female sports agent, the founder of the first junior hockey team in the United States (The Junior Red Wings) and the person behind the building of the first amateur hockey arena in metro Detroit.
However Colleen Howe is perhaps better known for tirelessly promoting her husband’s legacy as “Mr. Hockey.” She shouldn’t have had to work so hard at it.
Six years ago I had the privilege of interviewing my childhood hero for the first time when I wrote an article for the Detroit Free Press on the occasion of Gordie’s 75th birthday. As part of the assignment, I was also able to interview former players and hockey experts to place Howe’s legacy in perspective and to determine whether he truly was the greatest hockey player of all time.
Colleen Howe could not have been more correct.
Bobby Orr, who some argue was greater than Wayne Getzky and Howe, spoke to me from his office in Boston about his childhood idol.
“Are you at your computer?” Orr asked. “Go to Mr. Hockey.com and just look at his numbers. Remember, he played against all that talent in the Original Six era when they were traveling by train, no charters. In 1968-69, he had 103 points. (44 goals, 59 assists) It was his best season, and he was 41 years old. In his last year at age 52, he played all 80 games and scored 15 goals with 26 assists. When it comes to who was the best hockey player ever, don’t even go there with me,” he said. “There is no question that Gordie is the best of all time.”
The record also speaks volumes.
For twenty straight seasons, (1949-50 through 1968-69) the four time Stanley Cup Champion was in the top five in scoring, averaging 35 goals a year when the benchmark was twenty. Howe won six Hart trophies as league MVP, six Art Ross Trophies as the scoring champion, and appeared in 21 NHL All Star games.
Although Wayne Gretzky would break most of Howe’s records, including most NHL career goals, (Gretzky 894, Howe 801) Howe is still arguably the game’s greatest goal scorer.
When combining both their WHA and NHL regular season totals, Howe scored 975 goals compared to Gretzky’s 940. And according to “Total Hockey: The Official Encyclopedia of the NHL, using an adjusted scoring method that takes into account different eras, Howe’s adjusted NHL totals would be 988 goals compared to 779 for Gretzky.
Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, of all people, should have a pretty good opinion as to who was the greatest player since he has been on the NHL scene for the past 42 years and as a child followed hockey.
“The best part of Gordie’s game was his toughness,” Bowman told me, after telling me Howe was the greatest ever. “The space he created enabled him to be the player he was,” Bowman claims.
When Howe was honored during his final Red Wing season, a quote that appeared in a commemorative program from an unidentified rival player still sums up the feelings of nearly everyone (including son Mark) who played with or against Howe:
“He is soft-spoken, self deprecating and thoughtful. He is also one of the most vicious, cruel, and mean men I ever met in a hockey game.”
His brutal on ice behavior may stem from his NHL indoctrination.
Besides scoring a goal in his Red Wing debut on October 16, 1946, Howe lost four front teeth from a high stick. But for the next 2,421 games, he made sure he never lost another one.
Although often done as payback for a prior incident, behind the referee’s back Howe threw vicious elbows, furnished glove face washes, and if necessary, carved up an opponent with his stick like a Samurai.
For many a veteran of the NHL wars, a hit from Howe is worn like a badge of honor, an often repeated war story for the banquet circuit.
“Gordie went out of his way to introduce rookies to his lifestyle,” Hall of Famer Brad Park told me.
“In Detroit one night he threw an elbow at me and I went under it and put him down. Before I knew it, I saw his stick coming at me like he was going to take my teeth out. Instead he got me in the Adam’s apple and I went down for the count,” Park recalls. “Gordie was determined to protect his livelihood. But today he couldn’t play because with all the cameras, he’d be suspended all the time. But God he’s just a wonderful guy.”
Former Blackhawk Keith Magnuson, one of the League’s toughest policemen throughout the 70’s, remembered his Howe initiation. (Sadly, Magnuson died in a car crash a couple of years after my interview.)
“When I played against him for the first time, I wanted to see how tough he really was,” Magnuson said. I took a really good run at him but it was like hitting a cement wall. He didn’t even move but I went down on one knee and got up quickly. As I skated down the ice, I quickly found myself up in the air. Gordie had stuck his stick between my blade and boot and just kind of threw me into the corner.”
Stan Mikita, vividly recalled what happened after “accidentally” cutting Howe under the eye one night early in the Blackhawk center’s Hall of Fame career.
“A couple of months later at the Olympia we were both turning in the Wing’s end. The next thing I remember I was at the Chicago bench, my head is killing me. Our backup goalie Dennis DeJordy said he was the only one in the building who saw what happened. Gordie had skated by me, slipped his right hand up under his armpit, pulled out his fist, popped me in the jaw and put his glove back on. A few shifts later he ambled by and asked if I learned anything. I said, ‘are we even’? Gordie says, ‘I’ll think about it.’ But Gordie Howe has been the greatest thing for hockey,” Mikita says.
Did Gordie have any regrets for his on ice behavior?
No, not really,” Howe told me, after stating that he believed in religious hockey. (“It is better to give then to receive”)
“When I was young I was told you have to protect yourself. I just wanted to be square with the bugs. If somebody got me, I wanted to get them back,” he said..
“Not too many people wanted to fight him because they also knew he had other armaments besides his fists,” said longtime hockey historian and analyst Stan Fischler.
Sometimes the attention paid to Howe’s tough play overshadowed the finer aspects of his game.
According to Fischler and nearly everyone else, when it came to all around skills, Howe has no equals. “He could shoot, pass, skate, stickhandle, check, and fight as well as or better than anyone,” Fischler said.
An ambidextrous and inventive playmaker with a wicked dead on wrist shot, if checked from the right shooting side, Howe would often switch hands and drill the puck from the left if necessary.
“He was very, very deceptive, so you never knew where he was going to shoot,” said Hall of Fame goaltender Glenn Hall. “Gordie was so smart around the net. When a shot was coming from the point, instead of interfering heavy, he would often just pull down the top of my stick lifting my blade off the ice,” says Hall, who also calls Howe the greatest player.
Both Magnuson and Mikita will never forget one of Mr. Hockey’s greatest moves.
“He went around a defenseman holding him off with one hand, and with the other he fired the puck one handed past Esposito,” Magnuson says. “I swear that thing had the velocity of a two handed shot. Tony never expected that, and no one in the building could believe it,” he says.
Equally famous as his skills and mean tricks on the ice was his kindness and common touch off it.
Generations of Detroiters fondly remember waiting in line after a game in the Olympia corridor as Howe patiently signed autographs for everyone, often with a kind word, a joke, or a friendly elbow. “Gordie always had time for people, even in the opposing rinks,” remembered Hall of Fame linesman Neil Armstrong of Sarnia.
So who was the greatest hockey player of all time?
Number 9 of the Red Wings.
Please keep Gordie and his wonderful family in your prayers.
(Portions of the content of this article appeared in Bill Dow’s Detroit Free Press article of March 27, 2003, “Pure Platinum: Even as he turns 75, Gordie Howe remains NHL’s best of all time”)
© Bill Dow 2009. All Rights Reserved.