Superman just bid us farewell. It’s hard to believe, Gordie Howe dying, because for so many years, he seemed immune to all of life’s blows.
From a terrible early head injury that might have ended other players’ careers, to a stroke a few years ago that brought him to the front porch of death, Howe just kept checking Father Time, leaving the old specter bent in the corner and wondering what just hit him.
Nobody wins that fight forever. At 88, Mr. Hockey is finally gone, passing away Friday. You can debate whether he was the best to ever play the game. In Western Canada they’ll insist it was Gretzky and in Boston they’ll claim it was Orr, but here in Detroit it was, is and always will be Gordie.
Let’s face it. There’s a reason they called him Mr. Hockey, Mr. All Star, Mr. Everything. Who has nicknames like that? But then, who plays in five decades, who gets 23 All-Star selections, who scores 100 points when he’s 40 years old?
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Forty years old?
“Twenty straight years an All-Star, getting 100 points when nobody else could …” marveled Scotty Bowman on Friday morning. “I’m just honored to have met him and have known him.”
And that’s from maybe the greatest coach in NHL history. It was Bowman who famously put Howe in the NHL All-Star Game at age 51, his last season of his comeback that started when he was 45. The game was played at Joe Louis Arena. His introduction was saved for last. The crowd rose even before the words hit the loudspeakers. And as the only player with white hair skated to the line, you heard:
“And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey … Number 9.”
That was it. That was enough. No. 9. He will forever be that number. At least around here. He was a living statue, a monument to his own greatness, a name that became synonymous with doing it all.
“The first time I had a goal, an assist and a fight, one of the veterans said to me, ‘That’s a ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick,’ “ Brendan Shanahan recalled Friday morning. “I had never heard that expression before. What an unbelievable legacy to have that kind of a game named after you. It’s synonymous with the way he believed the game should be played. There was nothing that happened on the ice that he thought was someone else’s job.”
The best on ice
All throughout Friday, people were calling, scrambling, making statements and calling up stories. And as the mountain of information and tributes grew, you realized it will be a long time before we put the totality of this man, born a year before the Great Depression, into perspective. Twenty-five seasons as a Red Wing? More games played with one team than any player in history?
“The Red Wings organization and the National Hockey League would not be what they are today without Gordie Howe,” Wings owner Mike Ilitch said in a statement.
That is true. I’ve already been asked many times, how he could play in today’s game, how he stacks up against today’s players.
You can’t compare. Suffice it to say that as a rookie, Gordie Howe did as much fighting as he did scoring, and he remained that tough throughout his career. Gretzky had tough guys protecting him all those years in Edmonton; Gordie protected himself – and his teammates. He once famously knocked out Rocket Richard with a single punch. As Shanahan noted, there’s a reason the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” stands for a goal, an assist and a fight.
You can’t do that stuff today, so why compare eras? More important is what Ilitch suggests, that there might not be the game of hockey as we know it without Gordie’s legacy. Certainly not around here. The four Stanley Cups Howe helped bring to the Red Wings in the 1950s – in a mere six years – established this franchise as an elite hockey organization; so much so, that we always thought of it that way, even though it would be 42 years until the next Lord Stanley trophy.
Howe was behind that pedigree of greatness. Remember the seven straight years the Wings finished first overall with Howe leading the way? Seven straight years with the best record in the NHL? Never happened before. Not likely to happen again. And Howe’s place on the iconic Production Line was the forerunner of future famed Detroit groupings like the Russian Five or the Grind Line. None would compare. In 1949-50, Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay actually finished 1-2-3 in the scoring race!
Talking about Howe’s career is like that. The superlatives, the ridiculously impressive statistics. It’s like being in the treasure cave in “the Hobbit.” You can get lost in all that gold.
His quiet grace
But let us not lose sight of something else. Howe was also humble, particularly as he aged. Tough, yes. No-nonsense, yes. But I can’t tell you how many locker rooms and dinner affairs that I have been in his company when nobody knew he was there – until the whisper shot through the room “Did you see Gordie? Oh my, God! He’s over there!”
And there he would be, quiet, reserved, dapper. He didn’t arrive with noise and entourages. Just a towering, quiet, white-haired presence, as calm as history already written.
“He knew how to fit into a locker room as opposed to people who kind of say ‘Make room for me’ “ Shanahan recalled. “You had to shake your head sometimes and say, “I’m talking to Gordie Howe.’ He never seemed to give off the air of ‘Do you know who you are speaking to?’ It was almost like he didn’t know he was Gordie Howe – at least not what that meant to all of us.”
Kris Draper was a recent arrival to the Wings when Howe paid a locker room visit. “He knew I was a new player. He shook my hand. Just had a conversation. I had goose bumps. The first thing I did when I left the rink was call my dad and say, “I just met Gordie Howe!’
“Over the years, you never knew when he or Ted Lindsay might just wander in. It was a perk of being a Red Wing for sure.”
That quiet grace set a standard that would influence other Detroit players. People hail Steve Yzerman as a humble, understated superstar. But some of that comes from the history he observed from Howe. Years ago, I wrote about a discussion I had with Yzerman, who inherited Detroit’s captain’s “C” decades after Howe had worn it.
“Have you ever met Gordie Howe?” I asked.
“A couple of times,” he said. “He’ll come over and say hi.”
“Couldn’t you just say hello first?”
His eyes bulged.
“No way! I would never just go up to Gordie Howe out of the blue.”
“Because he’s Gordie Howe. What am I gonna say, ‘Hey, Gordie. How’s it goin’?’ “
“Well, don’t you think you’ve reached that point?”
He shook his head.
“I’ll never reach that point.”
That’s the kind of shadow Howe cast.
And now the shadow is all that’s left.
A simply super man
The reason this is stunning to some of us, particularly here in Detroit, is that Howe seemed tough enough to beat back any affliction. When we heard in October 2014 that a severe stroke had left him nearly devoid of speech and with limited use of his extremities, we prepared for the worst. We heard he was bedridden. That he’d dropped 35 pounds. But then came the news that he had made a remarkable recovery, with the aid of an experimental stem cell treatment. He was fending off dementia, he put weight back on, he even began travelling and was honored in his hometown in Canada.
It was the kind of toughness you expected from Howe, who was reportedly 6 feet tall as a teenager, dropped out of school to work construction, and eventually left Saskatoon, where he’d been raised, to pursue his hockey career. A child of the Depression, he was ambidextrous, he could fight, he could skate, score, pass, clear room for himself with his famous flying elbows. There was nothing, seemingly, he couldn’t or wouldn’t do in the game of hockey.
Maybe the only thing is live forever.
“The last time I saw him was kind of sad and funny,” Shanahan recalled. “He came out to drop the ceremonial puck at the alumni game the year Detroit hosted the Winter Classic (2014). He was escorted out on the ice. I could just see that he was a little bit lost, not quite sure what he was doing. We’d heard he was suffering from dementia and my dad had that, so I kind of knew what it looked like.
“A photographer was trying to position him so he could take a photo, and at one point he grabbed Gordie by the arm, trying to gently maneuver him. Well, the old instincts kicked in, and Gordie sort of raised his arm and mumbled something like ‘Get your hands off me.’ That’s the look he gave the guy. And I thought, “There he is. There’s the old Mr. Hockey.”
And there he will remain, in stories like that, in pages on record books, in a statue and a bridge and streets and future monuments, and forever, forever, in our memories, particularly in this little corner of the planet.
Superman just bid us farewell. The comic book version had an “S” across his chest. Ours had a winged wheel.