Hockey legend had a fearsome reputation on the ice but always respected code of honour
SCOTT STINSON 12.02.2014
It is fitting that Gordie Howe, the Hockey Hall of Famer whose remarkable career is remembered equally for his soft scoring touch, his hard elbows, and his uncanny longevity, lived longer than even those closest to him expected.
Howe, known simply as Mr. Hockey, and on the very short list of greatest players in the sport’s history, suffered a severe stroke in the fall of 2014 that left him unable to walk and challenged to speak. He told his family that he didn’t want to live. “He was saying ‘Take me out back and shoot me,’ his son Murray, a doctor, told The Associated Press last year. “He was serious.”
Instead, he went to Mexico, where experimental stem cell treatements produced a dramatic turnaround. His ability to walk returned, and he travelled from his Texas home to Saskatchewan last winter, where he was honoured by legends like Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Hull, as well as his own hockey-playing sons.
The comeback ended this week, when Howe died at 88 years old.
A six-time National Hockey League Most Valuable Player, a six-time scoring champion and a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he played for 25 seasons, the right winger set scoring records that stood for more than two decades until they were eclipsed by Wayne Gretzky. He won scoring titles 12 seasons apart, amassed almost as many penalty minutes (1,685) as points (1,850) and even in his 80s would shock those he met with his natural strength and firm handshake.
“For longevity of superior play nobody comes anywhere near to matching him,” longtime NHL coach and broadcaster Harry Neale told Postmedia News in 2003, when asked to name the sport’s greatest player. “There might have been players who had better years, or players who had better short careers, but nobody played at the level he did for as long as he did.” Among those who have also said Howe was the best ever: Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
Born in 1928 in Floral, Sask., Howe was the sixth of nine children. In his autobiography, “Mr. Hockey,” Howe says that his mother was chopping wood when she went into labour with him. “With only a couple of kids around for company, she put some buckets of water on the stove and got into bed,” Howe wrote. “After I was born, she cut the umbilical cord herself and waited for my father to come home.”
A farm boy who grew up hunting, fishing and scrapping at school, Howe’s first pair of skates came when his mother bought a sack of used items from a neighbour who needed money. It was 1933 and the Great Depression; the woman’s husband was ailing and unable to work. From that small act of charity was born a legend. “I know that putting those skates on was the moment I fell in love with hockey,” Howe wrote.
His professional hockey career began as a teenager when clubs needed players to replace those who had gone overseas during the Second World War. He joined the Red Wings in 1946 and the following season formed a line with Sid Abel at centre and Ted Lindsay at left wing that would dominate NHL scoring for many years. In 1950, the three members of The Production Line were the top three scorers in the league, a feat never since accomplished. Howe would go on to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer in each of the next four seasons, and he would finish among the top five scorers in the league for a ridiculous 20 straight seasons. Equally skilled with his right and left hands, Howe could switch hand position on his stick mid-shift, depending on the approach of a defender — an incredibly deft bit of skill for a man of his strength and size.
It is his reputation for toughness, though, that turned Howe into not just a legendary scorer but a metaphor for an ornery player. The Howe name is synonymous with the term “power forward,” his elbows are never mentioned without the modifier “sharp,” and today’s player who manages a goal, assist and a fight in the same game is said to have pulled off the rare “Gordie Howe hat trick.”
Hall of Famer Phil Esposito once told the story of his NHL debut for the Blackhawks in 1964, which soon saw him encounter Howe — and his mean streak. “So I get out there and I’m standing opposite Gordie, and Bobby (Hull) gets in the faceoff circle, leans over, and says, ‘Phil, you got that old bastard?,’ ” he told Postmedia News. “I took a deep breath and went, ‘Wow, Gordie Howe, this guy is my idol!’ And when Bobby had said, ‘You got that old bastard,’ Gordie had this little silly grin on his face. So the puck drops and six seconds into it he gives me an elbow — poom — and I turn around and I swung my stick at him — and in those days we didn’t swing at the head we swung at the hips — and we both got penalties. I went in the box first and I have a towel and some ice cubes and I’m trying to stop the bleeding … and I leaned over and said to Gordie, ‘And you used to be my f—— idol!’ Gordie told me later on that he tested every rookie that came into the league, and if you didn’t come back at him, he owned you, and after that he never really bothered me.”
Other legends like Dick Duff would insist, though, that Howe respected the sport’s long-since forgotten code of honour: don’t hit from behind, don’t hit a man who was down, and only pick fights with those of similar size.
“Our code was respect,” Duff said in 2009. “This was the stuff that men understood.”
Howe wrote in his autobiography that the toughness and violence that was part of the sport in his era was simply a by-product of the NHL’s smaller size.
“Not too many nights went by that you didn’t have a history with at least a few guys on the other bench. The league was hungry back then,” he wrote. “Not only was it hard to make the NHL, but once you broke in, you also had to fight like hell to stay there.”
Howe wrote: “When there were only six teams, every player in the league came prepared to claw over his best friend the second the puck dropped.”
Post-retirement, the player with the fearsome reputation became known as one half of hockey’s first couple, rarely separated from his wife, Colleen, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. Colleen, who became Howe’s agent later in his career and famously discovered that the Red Wings had been paying him half what they gave his lesser teammates, also arranged his return to the game in 1973 so he could play alongside his sons Mark and Marty in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. Howe met his wife at a Detroit bowling alley in the early 1950s — “she stood out like a 100-watt bulb,” he would say later — and the two were married for 56 years, until her death in 2009. She had struggled with a form of dementia since 2002 and before her passing hadn’t spoken in more than two years.
“This love, it goes a lot farther than playing a stupid game and fighting people,” Howe told Postmedia News not long before Colleen’s death. “It has been a friendship, and a sharing of a life together.”
Howe, who had spent years after his wife’s diagnosis raising money for dementia research, eventually developed signs of the brain disease himself. His memory was particularly affected.
“I wish he didn’t have whatever he has,” his son Marty said in 2012. “I know he would be with us longer. We’re enjoying the times we have now.”
Gretzky grew up idolizing the Red Wings icon — he took the No. 99 because Howe’s 9 wasn’t available — and later became a close friend. The two conducted an e-mail interview upon the release of the Mr. Hockey autobiography.
Asked by Gretzky about his childhood, Howe responded: “If I wasn’t home eating I was on the ice skating all winter. The rink was just boards and ice. In the Depression there was no money to do much — I think we were lucky there was man-made ice to skate on. I don’t know that any memory stands out as the fondest, but I always liked to score and loved to win. That was what I lived for.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
Howe was a fighter to the end, says Bower
Gordie Howe (left) and Johnny Bower in one of their many NHL skirmishes.
Once, a long time ago, Johnny Bower and Gordie Howe discussed mortality, and their place in life’s great dance.
That musing happened, of all places, on the ice, during an NHL hockey game.
“He skated by,” Bower said Friday, “wished me a happy birthday, said, ‘I hope you have many more; how long are you going to live?’ All that stuff. I said ‘Gordie, I’m going to out-live you, I’ll tell you that right now.’ And I did, I guess. For how long I don’t know, but I’m still holding on.”
Bower and Howe grew up in Saskatchewan, spent a lot of time as fishing buddies, and had a friendly, easy relationship.
But there was this matter of their other lives as opposing professional hockey players — Bower, the goalie; Howe, the wrecking-crew forward.
“The name alone scared the daylights out of you,” Bower, now 91, said Friday in the aftermath of Howe’s death at age 88.
Howe and Bower — the former from Saskatoon, the latter from Prince Albert — strained and toiled around the fringes of Bower’s crease from 1953 through 1969.
Bower then slid into a life of retirement, and eventually the Hockey Hall of Fame. The seemingly ageless Howe followed more than a decade later. A growing number of their puck-playing peers have passed on since then, and Bower says it’s a painful process.
“I sit here many times and say, ‘Nancy, there goes another one of those players I played against. There goes another one,’ ” Bower said. “There’s so many players passing away, and it hurts. You pick up a paper, and Joe so-and-so just passed away. It’s hard to take, in a way.”
- There was only one Gordie Howe, and there will never be another like him
- 'Mr. Hockey' Gordie Howe dead at 88
Bower’s wife, Nancy, broke the news of Howe’s passing Friday morning. It hit hard, he says.
“It’s a sad day, there’s no doubt about that,” Bower said. “But he suffered quite a bit, too, Gordie did. I thought he would have been gone a long time ago, but he’s a damn fighter, just like he played hockey. He wouldn’t give up on anything.”
Bower said he first saw Howe as a youth in Prince Albert; they squared off on the ice, a team made up of kids from P.A. playing a squad from Saskatoon.
“We were watching him down there, skating, shooting pucks in warmups, and we’re thinking ‘Geez; look at that big, tall guy,’ ” Bower said. “He handled the puck real well, and he looked strong.
“The game started, and would you believe it? He scored seven goals on me that night. Seven goals! And I made the sign of the cross more than seven times, believe me. That guy would come down, and he never shot in the same spot. That’s what got me — always the five-side, or through your legs, or on the ice, or up high. He had you guessing all the time, and he had a great backhand shot. It was just as good as his forehand shot.”
The two men got to know and respect each other. Bower remembers an appearance they made at an event in Saskatoon; at the end, they left on foot, got a block away, then Howe wheeled around.
“He says, ‘John, geez; excuse me.’ He ran back. I say ‘Gordie, where you going?’ But he kept on going. A few minutes later he came back, and I said, ‘Where have you been, anyways?’ He said it was a guy in a wheelchair, and he forgot to sign his autograph; he couldn’t do it before. He went all the way down there, and all the way back. That’s the kind of person he was. He loved kids; there’s not a bad word I could say about him.”
“But he gave some tough love with those elbows once in a while.”
There was only one Gordie Howe, and there will never be another like him
CAM COLE 06.09.2016
There was only one Gordie Howe, and there will never be another like him.
That hasn’t stopped National Hockey League scouts and general managers from scouring the junior leagues ever since he began dominating his sport, searching for that impossible-to-find combination of physical might, speed, competitive fire, scoring prowess, mean streak and character that defined the quintessential “power forward” … long before the phrase was coined.
And to be sure, what Howe did on the ice — and the still-staggering total of five decades he spanned while doing it — are the greatest parts of his legacy.
For those who grew up watching him play, or listening to his feats described on radio, no one ever played what coaches now commonly call “the 200-foot game” better than the larger-than-life product of tiny Floral, Sask., who passed away Friday morning at his son Murray’s home in Ohio, at age 88, after a typically determined rebound from a series of strokes two years ago.
But there were other pieces of Mr. Hockey’s life that continue to resonate, even now.
One was his impact on hockey in Michigan, and on the fans who made Detroit into Hockeytown. Howe was the star — every bit as big in his day as his two Motor City contemporaries, Tigers slugger Al Kaline and Lions quarterback Bobby Layne — who made that happen.
Much later, playing with his sons Mark and Marty in Houston and Hartford, he lent credibility and star power to the World Hockey Association, the rebel league which helped drag the NHL reluctantly into a more modern era of European talent and expansion markets … and Wayne Gretzky.
Even Howe’s gentle politeness, naivety and trusting nature — he had scored more than 600 goals before his Red Wings salary topped $40,000 — had an unintended impact, for the Wings’ shameful treatment of their greatest player helped underline the need for a players’ association, which his longtime linemate Ted Lindsay spearheaded against angry opposition from ownership.
But what most people remember who met him after his on-ice heroics were over was his effortless grace and gentlemanliness. He was one of those stately eminences grises like Jean Beliveau and Milt Schmidt and Johnny Bower who endured as icons of their cities long into old age and set an example for the generations that followed.
He could be caustic when he wanted to, and very funny when the spirit moved him, but mostly he was content to be a regular guy, coming to the rink to chat and joke with the modern Red Wings, who tried not to be in awe the first time they saw him walk into the room.
No single memory of Gordie Howe stands out more to me than a day in January of 1998 when The Hockey News held a press conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame to announce results of a poll to select the greatest player of all time.
It was always going to be a close three-way vote among Gretzky, Howe and Bobby Orr, and as these things go, the winner (Gretzky) was informed in advance so that he could attend.
Howe, who was not quite 70, also knew the result (he finished third), but showed up anyway, because Gretzky was his friend, and because … well, it was the decent thing to do.
Mr. Hockey was The Great One’s hero, and many years after that famous photo of Howe with his hockey stick hooked affectionately around the 11-year-old Gretzky’s throat, he still was the standard against whom Gretzky measured himself.
Early in his pro career, Gretzky ducked out on an interview that had been promised to a Denver writer, and all a veteran Edmonton beat writer had to say to him was “Gordie never would have done that.” Gretzky turned around, found the writer, and gave him a nice interview.
On the ice, gentility was not a Gordie Howe hallmark.
It’s out of fashion now to hearken back to days when a certain amount of savagery was not only desirable but necessary, but those who played with or against him speak fondly of Howe’s own code of conduct. And it’s impossible to comprehend his longevity without understanding how he made others frightened to challenge him.
There is a black-and-white photograph of Howe, shirtless, in a fishing boat that offers an eye-popping look at a set of shoulders that seems to start at his ears and end at his wrists. He looked like 205 pounds of tapered sinew and steel.
“Gordie just had a big space around him because he’d earned that space, and a lot of guys wouldn’t go near him,” Pat Quinn said one day when Howe was coming to Vancouver for an 85th birthday celebration.
Quinn began his NHL career in the Detroit organization and idolized Howe from the start.
“Nobody had to look after Gordie,” he said. “Gordie looked after them.” The Gordie Howe Hat Trick is now part of the hockey lexicon — goal, assist and a fight — but Howe himself only had two of them in a career that lasted until he was 52. He didn’t have to drop the mitts very often after rearranging Rangers enforcer Lou Fontinato’s face in a 1959 fight at Madison Square Garden.
“He wasn’t mean to anybody who played the game the way he thought it should be played,” said Dennis Hull. “But when somebody got out of line, he took care of it.”
Howe’s greatest years in Detroit were on The Production Line with Lindsay and Sid Abel.
“So he had a mean little bugger (Lindsay) that started everything and Gordie would come in and finish it,” Quinn said. “He’d get you on the ice or he’d get you in the alley.
“There’s been lots of changes, obviously, since the ’60s. I think where it really got stupid for a while — and Gordie was able to play through it, because he had a very mean streak to him — was in the ’70s when we expanded so much and the World Hockey Association came in, and we had too many jobs and not enough good players,” Quinn said. “So we started bringing in tough guys that infringed on the rules all the time, and we had bench-clearing brawls, gang fights, sucker-punches were prevalent.
There were a lot of guys that did it that way, but they didn’t do it to Gordie.
“But they’d do it to his sons, and then Gordie would exact the payback.”
There is an oft-told story from WHA days when Mark Howe, who himself would become a Hall of Famer, was piled on by an opponent, who refused to let him up. Gordie waded in, took off his glove, stuck his fingers in the guy’s nostrils and lifted him off the pile.
“A guy will always go where his nose goes,” he told reporters.
In the 1974 WHA series against the Soviets, a Russian player cut open Mark’s ear. Gordie got his licence plate number and later in the game broke his arm. He was the master of patience, waiting for the referee — there was only one when he played — to look the other way.
“You’re working a game, and you see a player down,” referee Vern Buffey once said. “You know Howe did it, but how can you prove it?”
“You just had to wait for the right moment. And you might have to wait a long time,” Howe said. “Today you could never get away with the things we did.”
But to say that Howe would have spent his whole career serving suspensions under today’s rules is absurd. He could play any way you wanted to play it.
Those who shared in the Howe era will never concede that there was a better player in history. Gretzky, Orr, Mario Lemieux, Rocket Richard, Doug Harvey … Howe, his peers say, could do everything they could do, and a few things each of them lacked.
“As Brad Park once said to me, there’s only one guy you could answer yes to any question,” said Marcel Dionne. “He had everything. Mario was big but he wasn’t physical. Wayne was not. Sidney (Crosby) is a mucker, but you see what happens when you do that now, you get hit more.
“So I think Gordie would have had to tone down, probably, because of suspensions. But he would have been a fierce guy out there. He was born with this.”
“Today,” said Dennis Hull, “a guy is 36 or 37 and they talk about the career winding down. Gordie played 15 more years after that. He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy. A beautiful skater, always in control of the puck, in position, tough, and what a wrist shot. He had it all.”
Where Mr. Hockey is going in the afterlife, they better keep their heads up.