One of the best tributes an athlete can have is to have something from his sport named in his honor, something that ensures a person’s name will be remembered long after he or she has gone (in addition to their game exploits). The House That Ruth Built. Gretzky’s Office. The Malachi Crunch.
Gordie Howe, who died this morning at 88 after several years of various health issues, is forever remembered not only for his illustrious NHL career that saw him play into his 50s but for giving us the Gordie Howe Hat Trick. The GHHT is when a player scores a goal, assists on a goal, and gets in a fight all in the same game and there’s probably no better way to describe how Mr. Hockey plied his trade. He could beat you with a snipe, a deft pass, or right cross. And he did. Often.
Breaking into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946, Howe scored just seven goals in 58 games his first season. But he scored 35 in his fourth season and would score no fewer than 23 for the next 21 NHL seasons. Interestingly, he never scored 50 in a season (49 in 1952-53 was his career high). He broke the 100-point barrier once, in ’68-’69 and retired two years later after potting 23 goals. When he retired for a second and final time after scoring 15 NHL goals as a friggin’ 51-year-old, he had tallied 801 goals (as well as 174 goals in 6 World Hockey Association seasons from ages 45-50). He was country miles ahead of his peers (his closest contemporary, Bobby Hull, had 191 fewer goals).
Gordie had chirps, too.
In addition to his prodigious scoring talent, Howe also brought championships to Detroit. Four of them, to be exact. They went along with his six Hart Memorial Trophies (league MVP) and six Art Ross Trophies (points leader). It’s where he solidified the Mr. Hockey moniker and his legend in this great game. It’s also where he earned his on-ice reputation as a sort of Swiss Army Knife of Pain. Howe wouldn’t hesitate to carve out some space on the ice by carving his Northland into an opponent’s ribs. Or perhaps he’d use one of his perennially sharpened elbows to make a guy think twice about daring to play defense on him. And if you pissed him off enough, he’d drop the gloves and leave you looking like this poor guy.
But as mean as Howe could be on the ice, he was the complete opposite off of it. The epitome of a Canadian gentleman, Howe off of skates resembled his peer, the late Jean Béliveau, in how he carried himself and in the aura he gave off. He was hockey royalty yet would never say no to a fan’s autograph request. And unlike many of our sporting heroes, there are no ugly back channel stories to taint his legacy. Gordie Howe was the real deal.
Howe retired from the NHL in 1971 after 25 seasons and was appropriately rubber-stamped into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year later. But he wasn’t done yet. He famously joined his sons Mark and Marty on the WHA’s Houston Aeros to become the first father-son teammates in pro sports. His hockey travels brought him to New England for his last three professional seasons. He played two years as a New England Whaler in the WHA before the NHL absorbed the team for its 1979 expansion, which opened the door for Howe’s return to the NHL for one final season as a Hartford Whaler when he was 51 years old (the only season I got to see him play). He was such a legend by then, he famously had his first and last name on his jersey.
When he hung them up for good, he was the league’s all-time leader in goals, assists, and points until a scrawny Ontario kid came along and re-wrote the record book.
In retirement, Howe became larger than life and one of the great ambassadors of sports. He turned grown men into little kids and his presence commanded respect until his final days. I can list superlatives and accomplishments all day when discussing him. Perhaps his biggest non-hockey accomplishment…
But this might suffice: when asked who the best ever is, Bobby Orr says, “Gordie Howe”.
Thank you, Mr. Hockey, for a legacy of excellence as a player and a person.