Gordie Howe always was grateful to the sport that meant everything to him. Now it is the sport’s turn to say it feels the exact same way about the man who carried it on his broad shoulders and in his huge, strong hands. The head of the Hall of Fame gave Howe the most eloquent tribute Friday, ending a prepared statement with the words, “Thank you, Mr. Hockey.”
Howe meant as much to hockey as anyone ever has, with the scoring touch of an artist and the brute force of a blacksmith. He was The Great One’s great one, what with Wayne Gretzky mourning the death of Howe on Friday at 88 by saying, “I couldn’t have picked a better idol.” Even though the consensus says that Gretzky is the best player ever to have laced up skates, Gretzky himself believes the title belongs to Howe.
Scotty Bowman, the coach’s coach who won a record nine Stanley Cups, always has insisted the same thing.
Just saying the name “Gordie Howe” means a whole lot, even today. It tells of a dominating style of play and a staggering modesty off the ice. Young fans know what you’re talking about when you refer to a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”—a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. No matter that, according to Sports Illustrated, Howe actually did that only twice in an amazingly durable career that lasted until he was 52. Larger-than-life figures inspire larger-than-life legacies.
He scored a goal in his first game, 70 years ago, when the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials were going on. He was a grandfather who scored 15 goals for the Hartford Whalers when Jimmy Carter was president. He still is relevant today.
Who could have imagined anything such as Twitter when the 18-year-old kid from Saskatchewan debuted for the Red Wings on Oct. 16, 1946? Yet today’s young players were tweeting “RIP, Mr. Hockey” to the man who earned that nickname (and whose wife had it trademarked).
Not long ago, a popular New York radio host responded to taunts from a hockey player-turned-neophyte broadcaster (you know the characters, no need to mention their names here) by saying that compared to the newcomer, “I’m Gordie Howe.”
Howe played with a nasty edge that provided room for his own skating and that of linemates Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel. It is said that people in the blue seats at Madison Square Garden could hear his punches land on the face of Rangers enforcer Lou Fontinato.
That approach wouldn’t fly today, but it didn’t hurt box office at a time when hockey was breaking out of its tight Northeast cocoon and getting on its way from being a little six-team fraternity to a 30-team big business. When Howe retired for the first time, at the seemingly ripe old age of 43 in 1971, National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell said, “When Gordie came into the NHL, hockey was a Canadian game. He has converted it into a North American game.”
It has since become a world game. Its horizons expanded with the appearance in 1973 of the World Hockey Association. When the Houston Aeros signed Howe’s two sons, Mark and Marty, the old boy just couldn’t resist coming back to play with them. He kept going for seven seasons. In a WHA All-Star Game, he once skated on a line with a skinny 17-year-old named Gretzky.
“I almost fainted,” Gretzky said Friday on TSN in Canada, recalling coach Jacques Demers giving him the assignment. Gretzky said he felt awkward when he broke Howe’s scoring record until his own dad told him that nothing will ever detract from all that Gordie Howe did.
Gretzky called Howe “the nicest athlete I’ve ever met.” That affirms a 1959 W.C. Heinz story in The Saturday Evening Post, which told of three 10-year-olds showing up at his home in Detroit on the day of a game. Colleen Howe said her husband was eating but added, “Did you boys want to ask him some questions?” She let them in and the greatest hockey player in the world greeted them with a hearty “Hi, fellas.”
Howe was one of nine children who grew up in Depression-era Saskatoon and never took anything or anyone for granted. As a kid, he would skate four or five miles to play in pickup games, sometimes when it was way below zero. As a teenager, he worked in construction for his dad, Ab, hoisting bags of cement as if they were tissue paper.
He had enough strength left to lift an entire sport that is poorer today for his absence and richer forever for his long presence. Thank you, Mr. Hockey.