As a person that was born in the early 1980’s, there have been several sports legends that I have had the privilege of watching dominate their fields of play throughout my childhood, culminating in them cementing their legendary status as I became an adult. Guys like Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Mario Lemieux, and Peyton Manning come to mind, players that I saw grow from stars to Hall of Famers before my very eyes.
There were also athletes that I never got to see in their prime for varying reasons (too young, not enough TV coverage, etc.), but who were still capable of great things. I never got to see the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, or Magic Johnson in their primes, but during the few chances I got to see them play, their greatness was obvious.
Then there are the guys that clinched their status as sports legends long before I was even born, athletes that I only got to read books and stories about, saw on highlight reels or old documentaries of some sort, and whose very names conjured up tones of reverence and respect from older fans. Guys like Reggie Jackson, Wilt Chamberlain, Phil Esposito, and the recently deceased Muhammad Ali come to mind, athletes that you wish you could go back in time and watch at the height of their abilities.
Gordie Howe was on that list of players that made their mark before I was even born.
On Friday morning, hockey fans and the sports world lost a legend when the man known as Mr. Hockey passed away at the age of 88. A veteran of 26 seasons in the NHL and six in the World Hockey Association, Howe was one of hockey’s greatest ambassadors both on and off the ice. Before Gretzky came along and re-wrote the record book, it was Howe who set the standard of excellence in the NHL. He was the one setting all the records and maintaining a high level of play even in the twilight of his career. Long before Jaromir Jagr started making modern-day fans marvel at how he can still produce at a high level at the age of 44, Howe produced the first 100-point season of his career in 1968-69 with 44 goals and 103 points. And he did it at the age of 40. It’s the most points scored by an NHL player in his 40’s, and it’s a record that’s not likely to be broken. The only two players to come close? Boston’s Johnny Bucyk with 83 in 1975-76 and Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne, who had 80 in the 2010-11 season. In Howe’s final NHL season with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, he had 15 goals and 26 assists.
At the age of 52.
That’s right, there are current players that are less than half that age that haven’t scored that many goals in a season.
Howe was the only player to suit up in the NHL during five different decades, in addition to owning six Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies, and four Stanley Cup rings. He is a 23-time All-Star, and he’s the all-time leader in games played in the NHL with 1,767. He’s also second in NHL history in goals (801) and fourth in career points (1,850). After retiring for the first time in 1971 following a 25-season stint with the Detroit Red Wings, Howe was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. But he wasn’t done yet. He came out of retirement in 1973 to play with his sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros of the upstart WHA. In that first season with the Aeros, Howe tallied 100 points at the age of 45. He would add another 100-point season two years later, and after six years in the WHA with the Aeros and the New England Whalers, Howe had one more season with the Whalers when they were absorbed into the NHL in 1979. He had 189 goals and 360 points AFTER he was elected to the Hall of Fame. That’s probably not something we’ll ever see happen again.
But more than the statistical accomplishments and awards, Howe will always be remembered for both his ferocious nature on the ice and his easy-going manner off of it. When he played, he was not only the best offensive player of his era, but was also considered the meanest guy on the ice. If you got one over on him or a teammate, he never forgot about it, and he’d make you pay somewhere down the line.
“Keep your stick on the ice because that’s where the puck is. Keep your elbows high because that’s where the other guy is,” he was once quoted as saying.
He was never afraid to create space for himself by being physical, but once he got that open space, he created offense like few others that have ever played the game. Which is why the Gordie Howe Hat Trick entered the hockey vernacular. The feat of scoring a goal, tallying an assist, and getting into a fight is an unofficial stat named after Howe because of his style of play. Interestingly enough, the feat was named after him despite the fact he was only credited with a Gordie Howe Hat Trick twice in his entire career. By comparison, Rick Tocchet is the unofficial leader in that category with 18 Gordie Howe Hat Tricks, according to hockeyfights.com
But even more than his on-ice accomplishments and style of play, he was also known for his likeable manner away from the rink, as I can’t recall ever reading or hearing a story about him off the ice that was bad. He always made time for the fans, willing to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He was the perfect ambassador for the sport, as his name and presence are still revered in the hockey world decades after he hung up his skates for good.
While many fans today never got to see him play hockey, odds are that they’ll be able to tell you who Gordie Howe was, and they’ll be able to tell you that he was one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the ice. Even Gretzky and Bobby Orr, regarded as two of the top three players to ever play (along with Howe), have been quoted as saying that Howe was the greatest hockey player of all time. When both the greatest defenseman of all time and the guy who broke most of Howe’s records regard him as the best to ever play the game, that’s some incredibly high praise.
Rest in peace, Mr. Hockey.
*Statistics used in this story were compiled from hockey-reference.com, quanthockey.com, and hockeyfights.com*
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