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Column: Gordie Howe was larger than hockey

Gordie Howe poses for a portrait March 6, 2003, in his office in Commerce Township, Mich.
(Susan Tusa / Detroit Free Press)

It’s comforting to think a spectacular game of celestial shinny has just begun, now that Gordie Howe has joined Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau on a perfect sheet of ice where they can swap stories and elbows and can skate forever on again-youthful legs.

Howe’s death Friday at 88 was not a shock but it was still a jolt, a moment to pause during the cross-country mayhem of the Stanley Cup Final and reflect on a rare athlete who was larger than the game he played. The Cup Final resumes Sunday in San Jose, with Pittsburgh up, 3-2.

Howe suffered a stroke in October 2014 but he had, improbably, rallied to the point of being able to go out shopping or make brief public appearances with one of his four children. That was entirely in character for the man who dodged Father Time for so long, who grudgingly ended his NHL career at 43 after winning the Cup four times, the scoring title six times and most valuable player honors six times, and came out of retirement at age 45 to play in the World Hockey Assn. alongside sons Mark and Marty, his passion burning as hot as ever and his elbows still brutally sharp.

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He finally retired at 52, after the Hartford Whalers were absorbed into the NHL, but he never left. The “Gordie Howe hat trick” — a goal, an assist and a five-minute fighting penalty — is part of hockey slang, reflecting every element of his game. Not just the goals, though he scored 786 in 1,687 NHL games and 121 in 285 WHA contests. Not just the assists, though he recorded 1,023 in the NHL and 248 in the WHA. And not just his strength and ruggedness, assets that made him both feared and admired.

“He was a gentleman but he was also very much a tough guy,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference Friday. “He showcased the best of what Canadians like to think of themselves as, highlighted with our national sport and our national identity on an international stage through a national pastime.”

Howe grew up in rural Saskatchewan but made his career in the big city without forgetting the work ethic that was the core of his upbringing. He was a lively and engaging storyteller and always had time to give a child an autograph, a gleam in his eye and a pun on his lips. The iconic photo of Howe playfully hooking his stick around the neck of a toothy, 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky — not knowing the blond kid would someday break his scoring records — captured Howe’s essence perfectly.

Gretzky always insisted that those who call him “The Great One” are too generous because he considered Howe the best of all time.

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“Unfortunately we lost the greatest hockey player ever today, but more importantly the nicest man I have ever met,” Gretzky said on Twitter. “Sending our thoughts and prayers to the Howe family and to the millions of hockey fans who like me loved Gordie Howe. RIP Mr. Hockey.”

Among those fans are hockey players who never saw Howe play but respected his remarkable feats. Austria-born forward Michael Grabner, 28, of the Toronto Maple Leafs lamented the loss of “a true legend … No one will forget you Mr. Hockey.” Buffalo Sabres winger Evander Kane, 24, also shared his sorrow on social media. “He was one of my owners of my junior team and was a big reason I wear the number 9,” Kane tweeted.

Those who saw Howe play knew his impact.

“So many generations of players wanted to play like Gordie Howe,” former Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He was the ultimate professional hockey player.”

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That was all he wanted to be: a good pro, a good husband who nursed his wife Colleen through the ravages of dementia, a good father to Marty, Mark, Murray and Cathy, a good citizen of the hockey community he loved.

“Gordie’s toughness as a competitor on the ice was equaled only by his humor and humility away from it. No sport could have hoped for a greater, more-beloved ambassador,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

One personal note: After the Kings won the Cup in 2012, a club executive was kind enough to bring it to my home, and we went outside to have a bright background for our photos. From a neighbor’s home came a bellow of surprise, followed by the neighbor himself, his arms filled with scrapbooks containing old but carefully tended hockey cards.

“Gordie Howe!” he said. “I’ve got to see Gordie Howe’s name on the Cup!”

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Rest well, Gordie, reunited with your beloved Colleen and once again skating fearlessly into the corners of an eternal hockey game. Oh, and Rocket? Monsieur Beliveau? Don’t forget those elbows. They’re probably laughing and bracing for it now.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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