Gordie Howe, whose interminable playing career and thorough embodiment of the sport’s skill and brawn legitimized his trademarking of the “Mr. Hockey” nickname, died Friday after years of declining health. He was 88.
The Detroit Red Wings, with whom Howe played 25 seasons, confirmed his death.
Though he kept a busy schedule of promotional appearances through 2012 for hockey trading cards and Alzheimer’s disease fundraising events, Howe had showed increasing signs of dementia and last year underwent stem cell treatment after a pair of strokes in 2014.
Howe died at the home of his youngest son Murray in Sylvania, Ohio, where he had been living.
A robust 205-pound right wing once described as “the John Wayne of Hockey,” Howe played his first National Hockey League game at 18 in 1946 and took one final cameo shift as a pro with the minor-league Detroit Vipers in 1997 at 69 — allowing him to appear on ice in a sixth decade.
His longevity and fame were such that Clarence Campbell, whose time as NHL president coincided with Howe’s playing career, once credited Howe with hockey’s evolution from “Canadian sport” to “North American sport.”
By the time Howe played his last NHL game in 1980, the league had gone from six to 21 teams, with 15 of the new franchises based in the United States. (There now are 30 teams, 23 in the U.S.)
“If you could make a mold for a hockey player, it would be him,” Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman once said of Howe. “I never thought there was another player close to him.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said all hockey fans will grieve the loss of Howe, calling him “incomparable.”
“A remarkable athlete whose mastery of our sport was reflected by the longevity of his career and by his nickname, ‘Mr. Hockey,’ ’’ Bettman said. “Gordie’s commitment to winning was matched only by his commitment to his teammates, to his friends, to the Red Wings, to the city of Detroit and — above all — to his family. Gordie’s toughness as a competitor on the ice was equaled only by his humor and humility away from it. No sport could have hoped for a greater, more beloved ambassador.”
Detroit general manager Ken Holland called Howe the greatest Red Wing of all time. In March, Howe had celebrated his 88th birthday in front of the crowd at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
“He was one of the greatest players, if not the greatest, in the history of the National Hockey League and the greatest Red Wing of all time,” Holland said. “He was a big power forward, one of the biggest players of his time, with as much skill and toughness as anybody who ever played. As a human being, he was incredible. He loved to be around people and to make them laugh. He was an incredible ambassador for the sport. This is a sad day for hockey.”
Howe won four Stanley Cups and set scoring records that stood for decades before briefly assuming a nebulous front-office position with the Wings and turning down an offer to coach the expansion Islanders in 1972. Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
A year later, at 45, Howe abandoned his two-year retirement to play seven more seasons alongside two of his sons, Mark and Marty, with the fledgling World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros (with whom he won two league titles and one MVP award) and New England Whalers.
The three Howes spent their last season together in 1979-80 after the WHA folded and the Whalers were absorbed into the NHL. (The Whalers relocated to Raleigh and became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.) Gordie Howe turned 52 that season, in which he played all 80 games and spent much of the year as the team’s leading scorer.
Among the reverential descriptions afforded him was “Mr. Elbows.” His willingness to mix it up with rivals led to the term “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” — a goal, assist and fight in the same game. (Howe himself achieved such a triple only twice in his long career.)
“If you play a little rough,” he once said, “you get respect. And with respect, you get just a little bit more space on the ice.”
He used that space to full advantage, five times leading the league in goals and six times in scoring. He finished among the NHL’s five most productive scorers for 20 consecutive seasons.
In 2,421 games — including playoffs — encompassing 32 seasons in the NHL and WHA, his 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists and 2,589 points all ranked first when he retired for good. Howe won six Hart Trophies, an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team, and six Art Ross Trophies, awarded to the player who leads the league in points at the end of the regular season. He appeared in 23 NHL All-Star Games.
Wayne Gretzky, who eventually surpassed his scoring records, idolized Howe as a boy and wore Howe’s No. 9 until it wasn’t available during Gretzky’s final season of junior hockey — which is why Gretz ky wore No. 99 thereafter.
Gordon Howe was born March 31, 1928, in a farmhouse near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, one of nine children of Ab and Katherine Howe. His father worked as a laborer during the Depression, often aided in construction work by young Gordie, who first played competitive hockey at 8.
At 15, he failed a tryout with the Rangers (Gordie’s brother Vic played parts of three seasons with the Rangers in the early ’50s) but was signed by Detroit scout Fred Pinkney. In his second NHL season, at 19, he teamed with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay on the Wings’ famous “Production Line.” In 1949-50, that trio became the only forward line in league history to finish 1-2-3 in scoring.
It was that season that Howe met Michigan native Colleen Joffa in a Detroit bowling alley, and they married three years later. Colleen Howe became one of the first female sports agents, founded the first junior hockey team in the United States and co-authored three books about her ties to the sport. She eventually trademarked the “Mrs. Hockey” nickname and joined her husband and two sons in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
She died in 2009 of Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia. Besides his NHL-playing sons Mark and Marty, Gordie Howe is survived by a third son, Murray, a daughter, Cathy, and several grandchildren.
A Canadian national treasure, Howe was appointed to the Order of Canada — second-highest honor for merit in his native country — in 1971.
“When I came up,” Howe told Sports Illustrated in 1969, “I cut out all the newspaper pictures showing me in a Red Wing uniform just to prove to everyone I played in the NHL.”
Now there are statues of Howe wearing that uniform in Saskatoon and in Joe Louis Arena. And recent movements by fans are afoot to rename the Hart Trophy — as well as the Red Wings’ new arena, which is scheduled to open for the 2017-18 season — after Howe.