Maurice Richard was more dramatic on the ice in the 1940s and '50s, Bobby Orr more sensational in the 1960s and '70s, Wayne Gretzky more creative in the 1980s, but Gordie Howe was as towering a presence in his day as they were in theirs – and his career intersected all of theirs.
"There's no way Gordie will be remembered for just one thing," Mr. Orr said in 1971, a few months after Mr. Howe's first retirement from hockey and a couple of years before the comeback that would span seven more seasons.
"Gordie will be remembered as the greatest hockey player. He did everything."
Mr. Howe passed away Friday morning at age 88.
No single skill defined Mr. Howe, as the drive to the net typified Mr. Richard, the smooth rink-length rush showcased Mr. Orr, or uncanny instinct propelled Mr. Gretzky. "Over time, all hockey comes down to is repetition, doing the same thing over and over a million times, and you become good," said Bert Olmstead, the pre-eminent checking forward of his day who was regularly assigned to cover Mr. Howe. "You do the fundamentals well, you're a great hockey player. Gordie Howe – what did he do? Nothing fancy. He played hockey: skate, shoot and check."
There was nothing elegant or artistic about Mr. Howe, except, perhaps, the fluid skating stride that fooled many into thinking him slow. His wrist shot, his stickhandling, his passes, even his notorious use of elbows along the boards, were executed with the utmost economy of motion. He could do all this because of his exceptional strength and a childhood that was utterly immersed in playing our national sport.
Gordon Howe, the sixth of nine children, was born on March 31, 1928, to immigrant parents in the village of Floral, Sask. While still an infant, he and his family moved 15 kilometres west to Saskatoon, where his father, Ab, could work as a general labourer. When the Dust Bowl drought hit the Prairies simultaneously with the Great Depression, Ab was constantly shifting from job to job, often holding two or more at a time, leaving little time to spend with the family he was supporting. "I think his biggest contribution to my future success was teaching me the phrase: 'Don't let anyone throw dirt on you, because they'll just keep doing it,'" the hockey star once said of his father.
Maintaining the essentials of food, shelter and clothing was a huge challenge for anyone in Saskatchewan's collapsed economy of the Dirty Thirties. Anything else was a luxury. When he was 5, his mother, Katherine, bought a bag of old clothes that included an pair of small skates. Gordie wrangled possession of them and began to play pickup hockey on any ice available – neighbourhood park rinks, the open plain near the airport, various sloughs – skating from one venue to another on the frozen ruts that automobiles carved into roads rarely cleared of snow. While skating on a slough, a playmate, Harvey Sheddon, crashed through the ice and fell seriously ill from the soaking in frigid water. The boy's father gave Gordie all the hockey gear, including a precious pair of nickel-plated tube skates. Equipped at last, Gordie made the local pee wee club and went on to play for three or more competitive teams every season. When he outgrew his friend's skates, Gordie earned a new pair by shovelling wheat at a brother-in-law's farm.
Like many Canadian boys, Gordie acquired photos of NHL players by mailing in the cardboard rings from the top of Bee Hive corn syrup cans. He scrounged through every garbage can he came across to find them and collected 180 photos. He gained entry to senior hockey games at the Saskatoon Arena by carrying the skates of one of players on the Quakers team, or by sneaking through the back entrance while the (pre-Zamboni) tractor that had just had scraped the ice deposited its shavings outside. Introduced to Ab Welsh in the Quakers dressing room, Gordie received his first new stick from his local hero; he was so thrilled, he slept with it.
As he entered his teens, the young player quickly sprouted to his adult height of six feet but was a long way from the 200-pounder he would become. The lean physique with the sloping shoulders, long biceps and mighty forearms began to take shape with a summer job on a construction crew that included his father and his brother, Vern. Young Gordie's strength grew to the point where he routinely carried 40-kilogram bags of cement – one in each arm – and dumped them in the mixer.
In 1943, he attended his first professional training camp, in Winnipeg with the New York Rangers, on a tryout basis, but was so homesick and out of place in the larger city that he returned to Saskatoon before the Rangers had an inkling of his potential. Those who saw him, however, were amazed by his overall skill and ambidexterity that allowed him to stick-handle, pass or shoot either left- or right-handed. When a military team, which included several enlisted hockey pros, played a local collection of all-stars in 1944, Mr. Howe scored an early goal after splitting the defence with ease. Harry Watson, already an established NHLer who would earn postwar stardom with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was taken aback when the rangy kid said he was 15. "Oh my God!" Mr. Watson responded. "I'll see you in the NHL!"
The teen prodigy went to Windsor, Ont., in the fall of 1944 to audition for the Detroit Red Wings and signed a contract for the grand bonus of one team jacket – which general manager and notorious skinflint Jack Adams didn't deliver until reminded a year later. Mr. Howe, restricted to practising and playing exhibition games with the Red Wings' junior team in Galt, Ont., didn't get any competitive experience until the 1945-1946 season as a 17-year-old professional with the Omaha Knights of the United States Hockey League. Despite the flood of veterans who had rejoined the NHL after the Second World War, Mr. Howe was deemed ready for the big time at 18 and never toiled in the minor leagues again. He was placed at right wing, scored a goal in his first game for Detroit and, after three steady seasons that ordinary mortals would have spent in the junior ranks, broke through in 1949-1950 with a 68-point season that placed him third in the scoring race, behind Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, his mates on the Red Wings' famed Production Line.
(Mr. Howe began his NHL career wearing No. 17, not the No. 9 that he and Mr. Richard would jointly establish as a regal digit. Mr. Howe switched designations simply because a lower number on his jersey entitled him to a more comfortable lower berth in the sleeping car when the Red Wings travelled by train.)
Stardom almost ended in a heartbeat during the first game of the 1950 playoffs when Mr. Howe lined up Toronto's Ted Kennedy for a body check. The Maple Leafs captain ducked at the last instant and Mr. Howe tumbled into the boards. Opposing factions claimed either that Mr. Kennedy had struck a blow with the butt end of his stick, or that Mr. Howe's injuries were caused by his head striking the top dasher. Whatever the cause, the damage was ghastly: fractured skull, concussion, broken nose, broken cheekbone, broken teeth.
His career – and, for a short time, his life – hung in the balance as doctors drilled holes in his skull to relieve pressure building on his brain. He pulled through in time to be with his teammates when they won the first of what would be four Stanley Cup titles in six years.
Those who thought Mr. Howe's injuries would be followed by his retirement from hockey would be proven correct – eventually – although a few things occurred in the intervening 30 years:
He won the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion six times, including the four seasons that followed his near-fatal accident, and the Hart Trophy as most valuable player another six times.
He set a record with 95 points – and, with 49 goals, fell one short of Mr. Richard's single-season mark – in 1952-53, which, league-wide, was one of the lowest-scoring campaigns in NHL history.
He finished in the top five of the scoring race an uncanny 20 seasons in a row (1949-1950 to 1968-1969).
He was named to NHL First or Second All-Star Teams 21 times, 12 of those on the First team.
Before his first retirement in 1971, he demolished the standing career records for offensive performance. He surpassed Elmer Lach as assists leader in 1957, Mr. Richard as points leader in 1960, and Mr. Richard as goals leader in 1963.
He became the first NHL player to score 600, 700 and 800 goals, the first to record 1,000 (and every round number through 1,800) points and the first to record 1,000 assists.
He returned to the game after two years in retirement to join his sons Marty and Mark on the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros (and later the New England Whalers); was the WHA's most valuable player in his first season back, and amassed 508 points in 419 WHA games over six years.
He played one last NHL season, with the by-then Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, after the WHA folded, and retired for good at the age of 52 as the only man to be a regular performer across five decades in any major North American sport.
His final career NHL totals came to 801 goals, 1,049 assists and 1,850 points. With WHA and playoff games from both leagues included, he was the first man to amass 1,000 career goals. His overall total of 1,071 goals was surpassed, only by the smallest of margins, by Mr. Gretzky's 1,072. (In regular-season goals, Mr. Howe prevailed 975-940.)
Mr. Howe's place in hockey's pantheon is so iconic that he had his own unofficial statistic – the "Gordie Howe hat trick" of recording a goal, an assist and a major penalty for fighting in the same game. He recorded that distinction only twice and was rarely a serious combatant after 1950, partly in deference to his head injury and mainly because his balance and upper-body strength were so powerful that only the toughest, bravest, or most foolhardy dared challenge his fists. Rangers defenceman Lou Fontinato qualified under all three categories on Feb. 1, 1959, after building a reputation as a fighter and boasting he would challenge, and whip, hockey's best and strongest player. That night, Mr. Howe, distracted by a skirmish, suddenly noticed his would-be assailant was nowhere in sight. Turning to find the ambitiously reckless Mr. Fontinato charging toward him, Mr. Howe held him at bay with one arm and unleashed a merciless series of hooks and uppercuts. Reporters in the far reaches of the Madison Square Garden press box clearly heard the cracking sound emitted by Mr. Fontinato's nose, which was left spread across his face in a bloody pulp. Mr. Howe never had to throw another punch in the NHL.
While incontestably supreme on the ice, Mr. Howe was a pushover as an employee for too long. Led by Mr. Adams to believe his pay was generous, he was enlightened in 1968 when veteran defenceman Bob Baun was traded to the Red Wings and privately chastised Mr. Howe for keeping the overall pay scale down with his relatively modest salary. Under the impression that he was Detroit's highest-paid player, Mr. Howe was stung by the revelation that his $45,000 contract was only half of what Mr. Baun was earning. Almost immediately, Mr. Howe demanded and received a raise into the six-figure bracket and Colleen Howe, whom he had married in 1953, took control of the family's business affairs.
Ms. Howe willingly bore any criticism that arose from the harder line she adopted with her husband's contracts, endorsements and personal appearances. Their marriage was characterized by affection, trust and loyalty that was also evident in tight-knit relationships with their children. In 2002, she was stricken with Pick's disease, a form of dementia that profoundly alters personality. After 49 years of happiness, Mr. Howe curtailed his schedule of personal appearances to spend more time as his wife's caregiver, a role he maintained until her death in 2009.
Mr. Howe leaves his sons, Marty, Mark and Murray, daughter, Cathy Purnell, and extended family.
On July 22, 1966, the city of Saskatoon celebrated Gordie Howe Day, drawing thousands of fans to cheer and praise him. The hockey great's comments rang out with typical humility: "Thank you for all the kind words. I know if I can live up to even 10 per cent of it, I'll be a very happy man."
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