Column: Gordie Howe was larger than hockey
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.
Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe (9) checks a Chicago Blackhawks player into the boards during an NHL game in Detroit in the mid-1950s.(Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images)
Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates his 545th goal, setting the NHL career record, in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 10, 1963 in Detroit.(Bruce Bennett)
Rangers goalie Jacques Plante, left, tries to keep Gordie Howe (9) from scoring on Nov. 7, 1963, at Madison Square Garden in New York.(B Bennett / Getty Images)
Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe signs autographs in Montreal in the 1950s.(Denis Brodeur / Getty Images)
The Detroit Red Wings had one of the most successful lines in NHL history in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the “Production Line” of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel. The line reunited in 1964 when Howe, left, and Lindsay, right, played for Abel, who became the coach.(Bruce Bennett)
Gordie Howe (9) beats goalie Johnny Bower and Larry Hillman of the Toronto Maple Leafs to score in the 1960s.(Bruce Bennett)
Gordie Howe of the Red Wings lies in a Detroit hospital after going head-first into the boards during Game 1 of a playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 28, 1950. He is visited by his brother Vic, mother Kathleen and sister Gladys Tyell.(Bruce Bennett)
Gordie Howe shoots against Gilles Marotte of the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 29, 1967 in Detroit.(Bruce Bennett)
Gordie Howe listens records at the home he shared with teammate Ted Lindsay in 1951.(Bruce Bennett)
In this photo from Feb. 16, 1951, Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe, left, works with teammate Ted Lindsay at his workshop in the basement of his home in Detroit.(Bruce Bennett)
Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings slips the puck past New York Rangers goalie Johnny Bower for his 215th career goal, on Nov. 11, 1953 in New York.(Associated Press)
Detroit Red Wings star Gordie Howe, second from right, and teammates and coaches celebrate after winning the Stanley Cup in 1955. Howe won the Stanley Cup four times with Detroit.(Bruce Bennett )
Hockey was truly a family affair for the Howes. Colleen Howe talks to sons Marty, left, and Mark and husband Gordie on March 1, 1974, in Houston. Colleen Howe was one of the first female sports agents and an advocate for junior hockey.(Associated Press)
Hockey icon Gordie Howe poses with 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky in Brantford, Canada, on May 4, 1972. Gretzky would go on to break many of Howe’s career records.(Associated Press)
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.”
Gretzky always insisted that those who call him “The Great One” are too generous because he considered Howe the best of all time.
“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.
“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.”
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!”
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.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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