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Hockey great Gordie Howe watches the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks play during an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., on November 14, 2013. The man known as Mr. Hockey has died. Gordie Howe has died at age 88.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

A common thread ran through the tapestry of reflections about the man known as Mr. Hockey: Somehow Gordie Howe combined a sweet, gentle nature with a fierce, even nasty disposition when he was on the ice.

"He was a gentleman, but he was also a very tough guy," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday in Oshawa, Ont., where he was participating in an announcement by General Motors of Canada Ltd.

That dual personality "showcased the best of what Canadians like to think of themselves highlighting our national sport and our national identity on an international stage," Mr. Trudeau said, noting that the hockey great left "an incredible legacy."

Mr. Howe died on Friday morning at the age of 88, setting off a mixture of mourning and reminiscence about the man who was considered among the three or four greatest players to ever play in the National Hockey League.

When it comes to the debate about the best player of all time, Mr. Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux are usually the subjects of the conversation. But there is never any debate when it comes to longevity, as Mr. Howe did not retire from the NHL until he was 52 years old.

"It's a tough day for everyone," Mr. Gretzky said in an appearance on TSN. "I had so many great memories. Just being around him and getting to know him – a 10-year-old child who gets to meet his idol.

"As I tell people all the time, he was nicer and better and bigger than I could have ever imagined. From my point of view, I picked the right idol. He was the greatest player that ever lived and happened to be maybe the nicest athlete that I've ever met. And I've met a lot of nice ones. He might have been the nicest. …

"I had signed at 17 years old and the WHA [World Hockey Association] wanted me to go to New York with Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe to promote the WHA," Mr. Gretzky told TSN. "Of course, nobody knew who I was in New York. I was a young kid. We were standing in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel and I remember Muhammad Ali came walking over to Gordie and Bobby. I remember thinking, 'My goodness, even Muhammad Ali knows Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.'

"He [Mr. Howe] could talk to and get along with each and every person. It didn't matter if you were a celebrity or just a person walking by. My dad always said, 'Just watch how Gordie Howe handles people. He talks with them. He looks them in the eye.'"

Mr. Howe died surrounded by his family at his daughter's home in Sylvania, Ohio. "Mr. Hockey left peacefully, beautifully, and [with] no regrets," his son Murray said in a text to The Associated Press, adding that his father died simply of "old age," not another stroke like the one he had in October, 2014.

For two years in the early 1960s, just before his career ended because of an eye injury, Doug Barkley was Mr. Howe's roommate on the road with the Detroit Red Wings.

"In that time, I just learned so much – not only about hockey, but how to treat people," Mr. Barkley said. "He would never turn down anybody for an autograph. It used to be, after the games, we'd get on the bus and there'd be Gordie at the door, signing autographs, and the guys would be yelling at him, 'Let's go, let's go.' But he would stay until he signed the last one."

Even though he retired 36 years ago, Mr. Howe is still at, or near, the top of many NHL all-time lists. He is the all-time leader in regular-season games played with 1,767, 11 ahead of Mark Messier. He is fourth all-time in points, with 1,850, behind only Mr. Gretzky, Mr. Messier and Jaromir Jagr.

That is why those who knew him well say Mr. Howe was the sort of player who could play in any era. And he straddled several, from his NHL debut in 1946 until his final game in 1980.

Bill Torrey, the architect of the New York Islanders' dynasty teams, first met Mr. Howe more than half a century ago.

"The game changes every 10 years," Mr. Torrey said in a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail. "The players are different, they're bigger, they're stronger.

"But then there are some players that transcend any era. Gordie would transcend any period. Now, it's even more true because of the size and strength factor. There are players from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that probably would have a hard time playing today, or certainly displaying the skills they displayed back then.

"Gordie wouldn't. He could have played in every era. Skating, he would keep up with these guys. Physical size, he would keep up. Skill-wise, he could compete. Gordie, with all the years he played, he would transcend about three 10-year periods."

Mr. Barkley agreed that the combination of Mr. Howe's physical gifts put him years ahead of his contemporaries.

"We always said, he could score goals, play the power play, kill penalties and, on the other side of it, could be effective in a fighting sense," he said. "He could do anything. In any era, he would have been great. He had such stamina, he could play a lot. He never seemed to slow down. He had that steady pace, just like a thoroughbred. You could catch him, but most times, you didn't want to."

Mr. Barkley's reference, delivered with a hearty chuckle, was to the other side of Mr. Howe's personality. If Mr. Howe was Dr. Jekyll off the ice, he could morph quickly into Mr. Hyde once play started.

"I saw both sides of it," Mr. Barkley said. "I recollect playing in Montreal, when Gordie scored his 600th goal and there was a standing ovation for him, which wouldn't happen very often in most cities for a visiting player, and especially not in Montreal. Then, on the next shift, he goes out and takes J.C. Tremblay into the corner and just plasters him into the boards and now there's a standing boo. That's just the way he was. Getting his 600th goal didn't mean anything more than taking out one of their most important players in the corner."

Rick Dudley, senior vice-president of hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens, saw both the hard-nosed and humorous sides of Mr. Howe when he ran into him, literally, in the early 1970s, when both men played in the WHA.

"I went to the WHA. The first game we played against Houston, I crossed the blue line and he clipped me with his stick on the forehead," Mr. Dudley said. "I remember the puck was dumped in [later] and he went back to get it. I ran him. I figured I've got to let him know not to do that. From about 20 feet, I ran him and hit him. He bounced off the boards and we both went down. He just kind of looked at me.

"After the game, a lot of reporters came down and asked, 'Why didn't you fight him?' For once in my life, I thought fairly quickly on my feet and said, 'Well, it seemed like a no-win situation. If I beat him up, then I just beat up a 50-year-old man. If I get the shit kicked out of me, which was quite conceivable, I just got the hell kicked out of me by a 50-year-old man.'

"We played them next a month later and I had made Sports Illustrated for quote of the month for saying that. He tapped me on the shin pads and said, 'You're getting a lot of mileage out of me, aren't you kid?' That was kind of a thrill."

Mr. Barkley first met Mr. Howe after he had been traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Red Wings.

"I think it was the third day of training camp and they had a golf tournament and somebody asked me if I was going to go. I said no, because I didn't have any gear. Gordie was right next to me and he says, 'You can take my clubs.' Then he says, 'What size are your shoes?' I said, '10 and a half,' and he said, 'Well, mine will fit you.' That's just the way he was with everybody.

"It didn't matter if you were a rookie or a veteran, he treated everyone the same – the trainers, all the personnel. He was just that kind of guy. He didn't know how to be mean to anybody off the ice."

That, too, is what Jim Devellano remembers about Mr. Howe. Now the Red Wings' senior vice-president, Mr. Devellano was a young fan when he first saw him play in the mid-1950s at Maple Leaf Gardens, where his parents had season tickets. He said he quickly realized that Mr. Howe and Maurice (Rocket) Richard were the two best players in hockey.

Thirty years later, Mr. Devellano became general manager of the Red Wings and came to know Mr. Howe personally. He also hired Mr. Howe's son Mark as a pro scout for the team.

"I'd say the biggest things I loved about Gordie Howe were two things: his lack of big-shot-itis and his simplicity," Mr. Devellano said. "Gordie Howe treated the parking-lot attendant as well as he would treat the owner of the team. He was respectful of kids, everybody.

"He was a gentle giant off the ice. He certainly was not a gentle giant on the ice. He had that mean streak that gave him a lot of room to play.

According to Mr. Barkley, Mr. Howe's values were forged by his hardscrabble prairie upbringing.

"He used to tell us about his times as a younger person," Mr. Barkley said. "Nowadays, we talk about how everybody's in the gym 11 months a year. Well, he used to work on the farm. The people who owned the grain elevators had a couple of drivers that used to transport it – and in those days, they unloaded them by shovel. Gordie was driving one and they'd get to the terminal and they had to shovel it off and Gordie said, 'You guys just sit there,' and he'd do all three trucks – and then go back and get some more. That's where he got his work ethic and the strength he had for his whole career."

Former NHL player and assistant coach Brent Peterson first met Mr. Howe when they were in the Hartford Whalers organization together and remembers a charity exhibition game in which he played on a line with Gordie and Mark Howe.

"We were playing the police team and this young kid from their team was running all over the place, hitting everybody," Mr. Peterson recalls. "Gordie yells, 'Hey son, this is a charity game.' Gordie let it go for about three minutes and nothing changes. So he jumps over the boards, goes into the corner with this guy, and boom, gives him three elbows, broke his nose. Gordie was 61 years old. As they're carrying him off the ice, Gordie says, 'Hold on' and skates over and says, 'I tried to tell you kid. I warned you.'"

Paul Henderson, who is best known for playing on Team Canada and scoring the goal that beat the Soviet Union in 1972, played against Mr. Howe a lot in the NHL and WHA but also with him for a time on the Red Wings.

"He wasn't a holler guy. He was pretty quiet in the [dressing] room," Mr. Henderson said. "He would just sit there and [say] 'Okay, we've got a job to do,' and then he'd pick up his stick [and say], 'Let's go out and do it, boys.'"

Mr. Henderson said Mr. Howe's violence was just as calculated as it was emotional. "When he came into the league, around every team, he took on the toughest guy and beat the snot out of him, [sending the message]: 'Don't mess with me,'" he said.

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