Gordie Howe was equal parts sharpshooter and street fighter, and remarkably durable to boot. But nobody dominates a rough-and-tumble game for parts of five decades without knowing when to pick his spots. For all that, even “Mr. Hockey” had no say in the timing of his passing.
Howe’s death at age 88 was announced by his family Friday morning, even as the attention of the sporting world was riveted on Louisville, Kentucky, where the funeral of Muhammad Ali was taking place. The parallels between the two men are considerable: each brought unusual skills to a tradition-laden sport and over the course of a career, transformed it forever; by the time they walked away, both could fairly lay claim to the moniker, “The Greatest.”
Yet there is little doubt who cast the longer shadow.
Not to worry, because Howe will get his due, eventually, if only because Wayne Gretzky, himself dubbed “The Great One” and likely the only real contender for Howe’s spot at the top of the game, said without hesitation upon learning of his death, “To me, he’s the greatest hockey player who ever played.”
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In the same ESPN interview a moment later, Gretzky struggled to pile on even more superlatives. There were many to choose from. Four-time Stanley Cup winner, six-time MVP, 23-time All-Star, record holder for games and seasons played.
Even “revolutionary” would work, since Howe practically guaranteed the NHL-rival World Hockey Association its brief existence by coming out of retirement to play six years with his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers. He even returned to the NHL at age 52 to put in a season with the NHL-expansion Hartford Whalers.
Gretzky knew all those things and could recite them by heart. He grew up idolizing Howe and benefited from the rule changes he prompted to open up play. But all he could muster finally, was, “It hit me like a punch to the gut.”
Now that was something Howe knew plenty about.
He grew up in Saskatchewan as one of nine kids, started playing organized hockey at 8 and dropped out of high school during the Depression to work and help the family out. At 16, he left that hardscrabble past behind, determined to make his way in hockey. Two years later, in 1946, he made his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings.
The brawling side of his game was nothing new. Fighting in hockey was part of the job description back then, and few players relished the opportunity to mix it up more. It became such an integral part of his game that after just a few years in the league, sports writers came up with the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” to describe a performance in which a player scored a goal, assisted on another and got swept up in at least one fight. The difference between him and all the other brawlers is that Howe found plenty of time to put the puck in the net besides.
He dropped the gloves less frequently as he got older, but he never let go of his hard-earned reputation as a guy you don’t mess with.
For years, he’d engaged in a long-running battle with tough-guy Toronto defenseman Bob Baun. Late in their NHL careers, the two got caught up in a contentious game and Howe finally tired of the shoves, elbows and cross-checks that were Baun’s stock in trade. Instead of dropping the gloves, Howe waited until the two were skating side by side behind the net after an off-side call. Baun was closer to the boards and as he turned to skate up the rink, Howe leaned in and shouldered him into the glass. The four stitches it took to close the cut on Baun’s face were just another calling card left by “Mr. Hockey.”
Howe was good with his fists, but he used his hands to greater effect when they were stuck deep inside a pair of hockey gloves. He was ambidextrous, a rare skill in any game, and he maximized that advantage by playing with a straight stick long after most players switched to curved blades to add some wicked spin to their shots. That way, Howe could park himself in the slot or behind the net, get control of the puck and force defensemen and goalies to gamble on which side he’d choose.
There won’t be another like him anytime soon. Today’s NHL is selling speed and sizzle, and de-emphasizing fisticuffs is part of the mission statement. The last thing the league is likely to tolerate going forward is one of its marquee stars brawling his way up and down the ice.
But that was Howe’s genius. He could play the game any way it called for, forcefully or with finesse. It’s why former Red Wing Kris Draper could say about him, sincerely as you please, “I just know anytime I got an opportunity to shake his hand or take one of his flying elbows, it was a huge thrill to be able to do that.”