The greatest of them all
Wayne Gretzky's new book, "99: Stories of the Game," is due to be released Oct. 15. In it, he expands on the moments in hockey that moved him the most, beyond his own experiences and acheivements.
In an exclusive excerpt below, The Great One describes how the late Gordie Howe, who passed away earlier this year, inspired him as a child, and motivated him as he grew into a hockey star in his own right
In the 1960s you were either a Leafs fan, a Canadiens fan, a Red Wings fan, a Bruins fan, a Rangers fan, or a Blackhawks fan. My grandmother was a huge Maple Leafs fan. My next-door neighbor, Sil Rizzetto, was a huge Montreal Canadiens fan. He had the first color TV in the neighborhood, and so I used to spend a lot of time over there watching Hockey Night in Canada. Sil's favorite player was Béliveau. Once you identify your guy or your team, you don't really change. I was a fan of Gordie Howe, and that never changed.
The greatest Christmas gift I ever got was when I was five. It was a Gordie Howe sweater. I can remember opening it and putting it on like it was yesterday. Every kid loves Christmas, right? But I never really wanted anything for Christmas except that jersey.
It was wool and it really itched. My neck would be all red, but it didn't matter. I wore it every time I went onto the ice in the backyard. At that time Gordie wrote a hockey column in the newspaper, and my dad would read it out loud–things like how Sid Abel had taught him "Anytime you see that net, drill it." And there was a song the radio stations played during hockey season called "Gordie Howe Is the Greatest of Them All," by Bob Davies. When I laced up my skates or walked to school or my dad drove us somewhere and I looked out the window, I'd be hearing that song in my head: "Gordie Howe is the greatest of them all. The greatest of them all. Yes, the greatest of them all. You can have your choice of all the rest. If you're a Howe fan, you've got the very best." Sometimes even today, I'll be doing something and it will run through my mind.
Everybody pictures the classic hockey player as a bull-necked Saskatchewan farm boy, with arms like Popeye, who learned the game playing on frozen ponds. Well, that was Gordie Howe. He grew up during the Depression without many luxuries. But according to Gordie, that's what got him into hockey. A neighbor was selling odds and ends to make ends meet, and that's how the first pair of skates found their way into the Howe household. From that point on, Gordie was a hockey player.
The first NHL team to scout him was the New York Rangers, where his younger brother Vic would later play. Gordie attended the Rangers' training camp in Winnipeg when he was fifteen. Coach Frank Boucher (the same Frank Boucher that Conn Smythe signed to the Rangers as a player) and GM Lester Patrick wanted to sign him there and then, but Gordie was homesick. Some of the vets at camp had given him a hard time and he couldn't wait to get back to Saskatoon. When the Red Wings came calling the next year, however, he was a year older and a year tougher, so he decided to give it another go. He ended up at their training camp in Windsor, Ontario. This time it was Jack Adams who wanted him to sign, and he did.
It took him a while to work his way through the minors. He was riding the bench in Omaha until one day he hopped over the boards to defend his roommate, who was getting thumped in a fight. His coach was impressed, and Gordie took a regular shift after that–and ended up dropping the gloves more than a few times. He was only eighteen years old, but he was as strong as an ox from working for his father's construction company. He could carry a ninety-pound bag of concrete under each arm.
CHARLIE PALMER/Canadian Press
By the following year, 1946–47, he was in the NHL. But the greatest player in history had a slow start to his career–only seven goals and fifteen assists in his first season. It shows how difficult it can be to judge a hockey player when he's eighteen. Even Gordie Howe had to learn how to succeed in the league. But by 1949–50 he was putting the puck in the net, and the next year he won the Art Ross Trophy for most points in a season. He won it again the next year, along with the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Then he won them both again the following year. And so on. The most dominant player of his era, and possibly any era, had arrived.
Ted Lindsay said that before each season Gordie used to worry that he wasn't going to make the team, and so he was tough on the other right-wingers in training camp. Gordie would say, "The only way that guy is getting my job is over my dead body." In a 2014 TSN interview I did with Gordie, he told me that he thought the Original Six had more depth in the talent pool than today's teams have. He said that back then there were easily eight players with NHL talent who could take your place if given the chance, and that even if you were hurt you'd play through the pain, because if you were out of the lineup you might not get back in. And that's what made the games so competitive and intense.
Not that I believe for a second that there were eight guys who could take his place. I don't think there has ever been even one. Gordie was a complete player. He was ambidextrous–he could put either hand on top of his stick, and so through the course of a game he'd switch to protect the puck or to step around someone–but he had a great backhand shot too. Especially when he was cutting in off the wing, he had so much momentum behind him that he could let a shot go with a lot of power on that backhand.
At the beginning of Gordie's career, sticks had totally straight blades so he always shaved around the toe to round it. Today sticks are custom-made, but back then you just got what you got. Blades came very square, and so Gordie would take a rasp to the toe. His philosophy was that the more blade you put on the ice, the easier it is to handle the puck at your feet. If your blade wasn't rounded, the point would dig into the ice and stop you from getting enough power on your shot.
The other thing he liked was a short stick. It seemed to help both him and his son Mark stickhandle. I think that's because they skated in a more upright style and it pulled the puck in. Gordie's advice was to hold your stick with your top hand just as you'd hold a hammer when you're driving a nail. It will give you the most leverage and you won't get your wrist broken.
Gordie was so strong that he'd often break more than a hundred sticks a season. He could bend a solid wooden stick the way Patrick Kane bends a modern composite. But he didn't have to reach down the shaft to get off a hard shot. His wrists were so strong that he could keep his hands together at the top of the stick and still rip it. Goalies would have no idea that he was even thinking about shooting.
That strength allowed him to play along the boards, holding guys off with one hand and carrying the puck with the other. And it allowed him to set up in the slot and defy anyone to move him. He could skate through the middle with guys draped all over him. And if he wanted the puck, he was going to push you off it.
But the legend of Howe's strength doesn't do him justice. You don't rewrite the record book just by being big. His real genius was that he didn't need to bulldoze through the other team. He moved smoothly and methodically, following effortless patterns around the ice. He never seemed to have to hurry, but the puck always found him. And he could always find the open man. Part of that is just the respect the rest of the league had for him. Guys knew that if they tried to beat him one-on-one, they were probably going to lose. That allowed him to dictate the pace. Sometimes that's a trade-off you have to make against a player that dominant.
At the start of the 1950–51 season, Gordie's fifth in the NHL, he was the only player in the league wearing a helmet (made out of leather) because of an injury he'd suffered the previous season. The first game of the semifinals, on March 28, 1950, was a battle. The Leafs were going for their fourth straight Cup. Halfway through the third period the Wings were behind 4–0. Gordie took a run at Leafs captain Ted Kennedy, and Kennedy stepped out of the way. Gordie went headfirst into the boards, with his teammate Jack Stewart right behind him. Stewart was known as one of the heaviest hitters in the league, and he'd had his sights on Kennedy as well. Gordie hit the boards so hard that the crowd went quiet. Then blood started to pool around his head. He'd fractured his nose and his cheekbone, his eyeball was scratched, and he suffered a serious concussion.
They operated on Gordie after midnight. A neurosurgeon named Dr. Frederic Schreiber drilled a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure. Gordie later said that it was awful listening to the drill and feeling the force of it penetrating his skull.
While Gordie recovered, the Wings went on to beat the Leafs and the Rangers to win the Cup. It was the start of a run of four Cups in six seasons: 1950, 1952, 1954, and 1955.
The incident left Gordie with a facial tic that made him blink. When I was with the Indianapolis Racers in 1978 and Gordie was with the New England Whalers, I once looked over at him during a game. We had been friendly for a while, as his son Murray and I played together in Toronto when I was fifteen, and Gordie would come to watch the games as often as he could. So I thought I saw him winking at me, kind of wishing me good luck. I mentioned this to one of my teammates, who told me, "Nah, he just blinks a lot. In fact, some of his teammates call him Blinky."
Stories about Gordie Howe tend to fall into one of two categories. In the first category are the examples of his generosity and graciousness. He would help strangers, he was adored by children, and he was unfailingly polite. The only enemies Gordie ever had were the nineteen guys sitting on the opposing bench. But those nineteen guys had to be on their best behavior.
That leads us to the second category–the stories about how intimidating he could be. One of his mottos was "Do unto others before they do unto you," but he could be counted on to do unto others after as well. In fact, he was known for his long memory. If you ever crossed Gordie Howe, your punishment was coming–it was just a question of when. Before he was known as Mr. Hockey, he was Mr. Elbows. He left a trail of broken noses, missing teeth, and stitches through the league.
And then there is the Gordie Howe Hat Trick–a goal, an assist, and a fight. Players love them, and if a guy has two of the three, his teammates will try to set him up for the third. If you look at the players who have racked up a few "Gordie Howe Hat Tricks," you can see why it's something to be proud of. Guys like Brendan Shanahan, Cam Neely, and Jarome Iginla are in the double digits. But the funny thing is, Gordie had only a couple. And it wasn't because he didn't score that much. It was because he actually didn't fight all that often after his reputation was established. No one wanted to fight him. Only a true heavyweight would tangle with Gordie, and it was a risky move even for a guy like that.
There was one fight in Gordie's career that probably served as a warning. It started because of Eddie Shack, who always played with a full head of steam. This was a guy who traveled in a straight line, and if you got in his way he'd go through you, not around you. (His linemate with the Leafs, Bert Olmstead, loved Eddie despite their rocky start. Eddie was skating wildly and accidentally hit Bert hard. Bert got up, grabbed Eddie by the jersey, and said, "What color is this, Eddie?" Eddie said, "Blue." Bert said, "Right. So whenever you see a blue uniform, steer clear of it.")
James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail
Back in 1959, nine years after Gordie's brain operation, Eddie Shack was a rookie with the Rangers. On February 1, the Rangers were up 4–1 in a game against the Wings. Eddie was being a pest, so Gordie sliced his ear for a couple of stitches with his stick.
But Shack didn't get the message. Later in the game he was mixing it up with Gordie's teammate Red Kelly. When Gordie made a move to sort things out, Rangers' heavyweight Lou Fontinato grabbed Gordie and probably wished he hadn't. Gordie's later account was, "Lou was coming like a madman. It took me a while to get the gloves off, and then things were busy." Fontinato's version was that Gordie had "rearranged his nose." But Fontinato was as tough as nails. He needed surgery to straighten out his nose, but he finished the game before heading to the hospital.
Gordie did eventually work things out with Eddie Shack, who by that time was with the Leafs. In January 1961, Detroit was at Maple Leaf Gardens when Eddie and Gordie collided. Gordie went down and was knocked out cold when his head hit the ice. He got up feeling dizzy and with a bad headache, so they took him to the hospital for X-rays. He had a concussion and needed ten stitches. Gordie didn't blame Shack, but Jack Adams was furious.
In a game soon after, the score was 1–1. It was well known that Eddie was taking classes to read and write, so Jack yelled at him from the bench, calling him "an illiterate so-and-so." Eddie rushed the puck down the ice, put it in the net, and then skated past the bench and said, "Hey, Jack, that's spelled s-c-o-r-e."
In 1967, when Eddie was with the Bruins, he knocked Gordie out again. He came in on him elbows up and sent him off balance. Gordie hit his head hard on the ice once again.
In those days the NHL would hold a summer golf tournament and bring in someone from every Original Six team. Eddie was sitting with Gordie. Gordie said, "Shackie? You don't hit me and I don't hit you. Put 'er there." Gordie held his hand out.
Shack said, "Gordie, it's a deal," and they shook on it.
At the start of the next season during a Boston–Detroit game, Coach Harry Sinden called Shack over to the bench. He said, "Eddie, Gordie Howe is the meanest, most competitive man out there. What are you doing skating around him with your head down?"
Shack replied, "Aw, don't worry about it. We got a deal."
It stands to reason that a guy as tough and as selfless as Gordie Howe would be the ultimate teammate. And who would know that better than his sons, Mark and Marty? In 1973, they were drafted into the WHA as underage juniors, just as I would be later. Gordie thought about it for a while, then offered his services to his sons' new team, the Houston Aeros. He had retired from the NHL two years earlier, and his sweater was hanging from the rafters in Detroit. He was forty-five years old, and his arthritis was bothering him. But he had a lot more hockey left in him.
It took him a while to get back into shape, but on opening night, Mark and Marty Howe were playing with their father. The WHA was a tough league, but God help anyone who took liberties with a player with "Howe" on the back of his sweater. And Gordie wasn't just riding shotgun. He scored over thirty goals almost every year he was in the league. Tom Webster, our coach in L.A. from 1989 to 1992–we made it to the playoffs all three seasons he was there–had played with Gordie in both the NHL and the WHA, so he knew him well. Webby tells a story that captures in a nutshell why players thought so much of Gordie.
Webby joined the Wings in 1970–71. It was Gordie's last year in the NHL. In order to help make room for Webby, the coach, Ned Harkness, decided to put Gordie back on blue line to play defense. That way, Webby would have a chance to play with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich. That's a bit like asking Mario Lemieux to play defense. Not that he couldn't do it–but this is one of the biggest stars the league has ever seen.
Gordie Howe had played on the Production Line with Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel since 1947–48–four years before Delvecchio and ten years before Mahovlich even joined the league–and he'd led the league in scoring from 1950–51 to 1953–54. The only guy who came close to his numbers was the Rocket in 1953–54, and he was fourteen points behind. Now the coach comes and asks him to move back–and of course he does it, because he's the ultimate team guy.
And then two seasons later Gordie came out of retirement and joined the WHA. He moved over from the Houston Aeros to the New England Whalers in 1977–78 and joined up again with Tom Webster who played on his right wing. Gordie was at center ice and his son Mark was on left wing. What a great line.
Gordie came up to Webby and said, "Listen, I don't have the touch like you do right now, so you just make your way out into the slot. I'll go into the corners and I'll find the puck for ya." At forty-nine years of age, Gordie would go into the corners instead of making the young guys do it. But that's the way Gordie Howe was.
All Gordie wanted to do was play hockey. He didn't seem to worry about the money. He felt he could put his trust in Jack Adams and in return Adams would treat him fairly. Gordie had only one request as a player during salary negotiations with Adams: he didn't want anyone to be paid more than he was. It was a fair request, considering that he was often the best player in the game.
But a conversation with Bob Baun broke the trust Gordie had in the front office. Baun had been drafted by Oakland in the 1967 expansion draft, and then was traded to Detroit in 1968. (Baun was famous for a goal he scored for the Leafs in the sixth game of the 1964 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. Halfway through the third period with the score tied 3–3, he broke his ankle blocking a Gordie Howe shot while killing a penalty. Baun went to the dressing room, had his ankle shot up with freezing and taped, and came back out.
He scored in overtime and the Leafs went on to win the Cup in Game Seven.) In 1969 Gordie and Baun and some other vets decided to take the rookies to lunch. Back then players didn't discuss their salaries. But Baun had served as interim president of the new players' association. So it was not just idle conversation when the talk turned to contracts and money. Baun disclosed his contract. He was making more than Gordie Howe.
Gordie was very, very hurt. It was a tremendous blow to his ego or his pride or whatever you want to call it. He felt betrayed because of all the sacrifices he'd made based on the loyalty he had for the Red Wings. Gordie was so upset that he went down and talked to owner Bruce Norris. Gordie was given the $100,000-a-year raise he requested, but the incident destroyed his trust in management.
That's when Gordie's wife, Colleen, stepped in. Her attitude was, "I won't let this happen again. I'm going to take care of my husband and I'm going to take care of my boys." She became their manager and the first female player agent in the NHL. I give her a tremendous amount of credit for that.
When Gordie Howe retired from the NHL a second time in 1980, the league and the game lost a player the likes of which we will never see again. He was a legend even when he was still playing. One glimpse of his greatness is reflected in the career of another true legend of the game–Bobby Orr. Bobby's first NHL All-Star game was in 1968. Gordie played in that game. In fact, he got into a rare All-Star game fight with Mike Walton, then of the Maple Leafs. It's hard to believe, but Gordie's first All-Star game was in 1948, the year Bobby was born (and Gordie dropped the gloves in that game too). Most astonishing of all is that Gordie's final All-Star game was in 1980, two years after Orr had retired.
That game was at Joe Louis Arena, and even though Gordie was returning as a member of the Hartford Whalers, the crowd gave their hero a standing ovation that went on for minutes. I was there. It was my first All-Star game and his twenty-third. The players were introduced one by one. As each guy skated out to his blue line, the announcer called out his name and the team he was representing. Gordie was the last to step on the ice. The crowd spontaneously rose to its feet as his name was called, and he was introduced as representing not this or that team but all of hockey. The applause went on for several minutes. The adoration of that crowd–and the humility on Gordie's face–is something I will never forget.
No matter how you look at it, his numbers are staggering. He scored 801 goals, in a defensively oriented league, with a straight blade, back when the season was only about seventy games long. And that doesn't count the 174 goals and 508 points he scored in the WHA. He was among the top five scorers for twenty consecutive seasons. I may have broken some of his records, but I never came close to that. And no one ever will. And there's another record no one will ever come close to: Gordie scored fifteen goals in the NHL–as a fifty-one-year-old. Anyone who can do that at forty is a legend. No one is ever going to do it at fifty again.
Like the true sportsman Gordie was, he went on the road with us in 1994 when I was with the Kings and close to breaking his record of 801 goals. It got kind of crazy, and after about two weeks we were beginning to wonder how long we could ask Gordie Howe to follow us around. I was certainly feeling pressure. I idolized Gordie and felt as if I was letting him down.
What was really crazy was that in each game I was using nine sticks, three sets of gloves, and three or four different helmets. In a record-setting situation, everybody wants something when the big goal is scored. The Hall of Fame wanted something, the NHL wanted something, the team wanted something, and on it goes.
We were at home on March 23, 1994, when Vancouver came in. The Canucks played a big game and were a good skating club, so it was always tough to go up against them. But at 14:47 of the second period on our power play, the right guys were on the ice–Marty McSorley, Luc Robitaille, and Jari Kurri.
Luc made a drop pass to me just inside the blue line and I gave it to Marty, who returned it cross-ice. I picked it out of the air past the middle of the right circle and put it in past Kirk McLean. Of all the goals I scored in my career, that goal means the most because of the connection to Gordie Howe, the greatest of them all.
Excerpted from 99: Stories of the Game by Wayne Gretzky with Kirstie McLellan Day. Copyright © 2016 Wayne Gretzky. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. Available Oct. 15.