Gordie Howe is referred to as simply "Mr. Hockey". World War II had just ended when he first entered the National Hockey League, and when he played his final NHL season 33 years later, Wayne Gretzky was playing his first. Over those five decades, Howe didn't just survive, he was dominant - on the scoring lists, in battles in the corners, on game-winning goals and when the year-end awards were handed out. He was a big man, though by modern standards no behemoth, but what set him apart was his incredible strength.
Though other superstars could be deemed somewhat better scorers, tougher fighters or faster skaters, no player has approached Gordie Howe's sustained level of excellence. Incredibly, Gordie finished in the top 5 in NHL scoring for 20 straight seasons. To endure and excel, Howe needed a unique set of qualities, both physical and mental, and the foundations for his astonishing career were laid in him from an early age.
Howe grew and matured quickly, and when he was 15 he made a bid to play with the New York Rangers, attending the team's training camp in Winnipeg. He was homesick, however, and before the end of the camp he returned to Saskatchewan. He made a better impression with the Detroit Red Wings the next year, joining a group of Red Wing veterans and untried youngsters to work out in front of Detroit boss Jack Adams. The ambidextrous Howe drew Adams' attention from the start with a sizzling rush down the left wing and a sharp shot. The next minute he escaped down the right wing, switched his stick to the other side and still with a forehand zipped another shot at the goal.
Howe made his professional debut when he was 18, taking up the right wing for Detroit at the beginning of the 1946-47 season. He was 6' tall and just over 200 pounds, making him one of the heavier players in the league. He scored in his first game but wasn't at all confident that he'd stay in the league for long. He kept a scrapbook of his first year, proof for future generations that he'd in fact played in the NHL. But Howe need not have worried about his hockey future. Though he only scored seven goals in his rookie season, he created a buzz among fans and opponents alike. He threw his weight around and he never backed away from a fight. Another tough star, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, challenged the rookie with a shove and a few angry words in Howe's first game in Montreal. Howe knocked Richard out cold with one punch.
Howe was put on a line with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay and over the next three years the troika and the Detroit team became the league's best. Howe more than doubled his scoring in his third year and played in his first All-Star Game in 1948. True to his nature in his early years, he spent five minutes of the All-Star showcase in the penalty box for fighting. The Howe-Lindsay-Abel line was named "the Production Line" for its scoring proficiency in 1948-49 when Lindsay and Abel placed third and fourth in league scoring. Lindsay was the truculent and tough left winger who also had the skills to make and finish plays. Abel, the center, was a smooth skater and an accurate passer, and at seven years their senior the veteran of the line. Howe could do it all, and his scoring improved as he spent less time in the penalty box.
The three linemates finished the 1949-50 season 1-2-3 in the year-end scoring race, with Abel winning the Hart Trophy for his league-leading total and young Howe almost doubling his scoring total to place third. In the playoffs, in the first game of an acrimonious series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club that had dispatched the Red Wings in the teams' previous 11 playoff games, Howe was involved in an on-ice accident that almost ended his career and his life. The Leafs' Ted "Teeder" Kennedy was moving with the puck toward the Detroit goal, skating down the left wing about six feet from the boards. He had just passed the center line when Howe attempted to bodycheck him. Kennedy stopped abruptly and Howe went crashing into the boards head first. He lay unconscious on the ice, blood covering his face, until emergency staff removed him on a stretcher.
For the next few hours, many thought the worst. His mother was called in case his condition worsened and an operation was performed to relieve the pressure on his brain. Howe had fractured his skull and was out for the rest of the playoffs, but he did make a remarkable recovery. The Wings, stirred by Howe's injury, defeated the Leafs in overtime of the seventh game, ending Toronto's three-year reign as Stanley Cup champions. When Detroit won the Cup with a victory over the New York Rangers, again in overtime of the seventh game, Howe was cheered when he gingerly walked onto the Olympia ice to touch the trophy.
Apart from his forbidding temperament, Howe's athletic and savvy playing style also contributed to his longevity. He never wasted energy if he didn't need to, especially after he cut down on the number of fights he'd take part in early in his career. He was economical with his movements, anticipating when and where the play would intersect with his effortless progress around the ice. He often played 45 minutes of a game when the average total was 25. Observers noticed that when his exhausted line returned to the bench, Howe was the first to recover and raise his head, ready for another shift.
In all, Howe was selected to 21 NHL All-Star squads, 12 times to the First Team. Six times he led the NHL in scoring to capture the Art Ross Trophy and six times he won the Hart as the league's most valuable player. His Detroit teams won the Stanley Cup four times.
Howe had been in his prime during a defensive era, the 1940s and 1950s, when scoring was difficult and checking was tight. When he was 40, in 1967, the league expanded from six to 12 teams and the number of offensive opportunities grew with it. Howe played the 1968-69 season on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich, the mercurial but talented star who had moved to Detroit from Toronto. Mahovlich was big, fast and skilled and Delvecchio was a gifted playmaker. The three were dubbed "the Production Line 3" and Howe's scoring returned to the levels of his youth and then beyond. He topped 100 points for the first time, scoring 44 goals and adding a career-high 59 assists.
Howe was among the top 10 scorers in 1969-70, but arthritis in his left wrist finally forced him to the sidelines following the 1970-71 season, his 25th in the league.
But Howe's retirement was short-lived. In 1973 he was given a unique opportunity, one he couldn't refuse. Two of his sons, Mark and Marty, were promising young players in junior hockey. The Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association offered Gordie a chance to play with his boys on the same team, even on the same line. Gordie had an operation to improve his wrist and came out from behind his desk to play again. He did his best to make hockey fly in Houston, going to unusual lengths to promote the game.
During his first season, while driving up to the hotel parking lot, he witnessed a thief snatch a woman's purse. Howe chased him for several blocks until the criminal dumped the stolen booty. Gordie would have continued after him had not his wife Colleen persuaded him against it. When Howe returned the purse to its rightful owner, the woman's friend asked what they could do to repay him. 'Well, I'm a player with the Houston Aeros,' Howe said. "How about attending some of our games?" The couple promised to become regular fans. The Aeros did win consecutive championships in the Howes' first two seasons and Gordie was selected as the WHA's most valuable player in 1974 for his 100-point revival.
Gordie moved with Mark and Marty to the New England Whalers in 1977 when the Aeros struggled. When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, Howe, age 51, played one final season, competing in all 80 games of the schedule with the Hartford Whalers. The elder Howe was appointed to the roster for the 1980 NHL All-Star Game by coach Scotty Bowman. He and Phil Esposito and Jean Ratelle, stars of the game at the end of their careers, skated out onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit alongside the youngest to ever play in the game, 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky had idolized Gordie and wore number 99 in homage to his boyhood hero. Having played in All-Star games spanning five decades, Howe was given a tremendous standing ovation by the Detroit fans. It lasted so long that he finally had to skate to the bench in an attempt to stop the cheering. When he collected an assist on an insurance goal in his side's 6-3 win, the ovation was once again long and heartfelt.
Gretzky would later break many of Howe's records, and the two all-time greats became close friends when Howe traveled with Gretzky as nearly each Howe benchmark was matched and then eclipsed by the Great One. One record Gretzky did not reach was Gordie's career goal mark of 975, combining WHA and NHL totals (Gretzky finished with 931). Another milestone that probably no one will ever reach was further stretched when Howe played professional hockey in a sixth decade in 1997. He was signed to a one-game contract by the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League and, almost 70 years old, made a stirring return to the ice for one shift.
For multiple generations, Gordie Howe is not only Mr. Hockey, he is hockey.