Before Wayne Gretzky entered the NHL, it was Gordie Howe who held all the records that some believed could never be broken. That’s among the many reasons why hockey fans worldwide were saddened to learn of Howe’s passing Friday morning. Howe’s feats during his career are almost innumerable, and it didn’t take him long to find his way into the record book.
He played his first game in the NHL during the 1946-47 season, and little more than a decade later, in 1957-58, Howe had his first NHL record as the game’s all-time leader in assists, surpassing Elmer Lach, who had held the record for six seasons before Howe captured it. That was the first major record Howe took hold of but he would etch his name into the record book with regularity from then on out.
Next up was the points record, and Howe took that out of the Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard’s grasp by the 1959-60 campaign. By 1961-62, Howe was the NHL’s all-time leader in games played, and two season later, in 1962-64, Howe would topple Richard again, this time to become the NHL’s goal-scoring king.
But Howe’s accomplishments go beyond statistical achievements. Howe managed feats that had never been achieved before and there are some that will likely never be matched. Some of these marks are statistical and others meaningful in a way numbers can’t measure:
5. Taking the ice across six straight decades
Howe’s career began in the late-1940s and, given his tenacious style of play and physical nature, it wouldn’t have been beyond comprehension had Howe worn the tread off of his tires by the time he was in his mid-30s. But by the time that came to pass, Howe was literally in the middle of his career. Howe’s 34th birthday came at the tail end of the 1961-62 season, which was the 16th season of his career. He went on to play another 16 seasons.
When Howe retired for good in 1980 at a young 51, his career had officially spanned five decades. He began in the 1940s and remained into the NHL until 1971. At that time, his career had reached the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. But Howe returned to the game in 1973-74 to suit up for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, and by the time the WHA folded, Howe still had some game left in him. He came back for one final season in 1979-80, officially marking the fifth decade he had seen NHL ice.
The sixth decade isn’t exactly one in which Howe played, per se, but he did technically take the ice for a minor league game. In 1997-98, as a 69-year-old, Howe signed a one-day contract with the IHL’s Detroit Vipers and skated a single shift. Though it was as much a publicity stunt as anything, it allowed Howe to take the ice in a pro capacity for a sixth-consecutive decade.
4. Howe holds Art Ross for four seasons
Considering it took Howe 14 seasons to become the league’s all-time leading scorer, maybe it’s not so shocking that it was he who dominated the race for the scoring title for so long. But before there were perennial Art Ross Trophy winners like Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur or Gretzky, Howe was the one who was constantly atop the scoring lead.
The Art Ross was introduced into the NHL ahead of the 1947-48 season and in its first three seasons, it was won by Elmer Lach, Roy Conacher and teammate Ted Lindsay. All three should have felt lucky they got their wins in. By the 1950-51 campaign, Howe planted his name atop the league’s scoring lead and wouldn’t be removed for the next four seasons.
Howe first won the Art Ross with a 43-goal, 86-point season in 1950-51, smashing the competition and leaving second-place Maurice Richard 20 points behind. Howe would match his 86-point output the following season while setting a then-career-high of 47 goals. This time, he finished just shy of 20 points ahead of Lindsay. Howe re-wrote his own single-season scoring record in 1952-53 with an outstanding 49-goal, 95-point season, two-dozen points more than Lindsay, and Howe would win his fourth straight Art Ross in 1953-54 by scoring 14 points more than Richard. It was the narrowest margin during his four-year reign. He would win two more, in 1956-57 and 1962-63, before his career was through.
Howe’s 95-point season would remain the NHL single-season scoring record for six seasons until Dickie Moore broke the mark by a single point in 1958-59.
3. Howe helps Red Wings to four Stanley Cups
‘Mr. Hockey’ may be from Saskatchewan, but he’s one of Michigan’s favorite sons for many reasons. Not only did he spend all but one of his incredible 25 NHL seasons with the Red Wings, but Howe helped transform Detroit from an easy first-round opponent to a perennial finalist from just about the moment he stepped on the scene.
In Howe’s sophomore year in Detroit, the Red Wings, who had been beaten handily in the past two post-seasons, earned their way into the Stanley Cup final only to be swept by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The same fate would befall Howe’s Red Wings the following season, but in 1949-50, Detroit finally broke through. They first downed the Maple Leafs in seven games in Round One before capturing their first championship of the Howe era. Injury kept Howe out of the lineup for all but one game of that run, though, and it would have to be the next season, 1951-52, that Howe could really make his mark in the playoffs.
That post-season, Howe score two goals and seven points as the Red Wings swept their way to a second Stanley Cup. Detroit would suffer a shocking first-round exit the next season, though.
Howe’s greatest post-season runs came in the two years that followed the heartbreaking playoff exit in 1952-53. After that defeat, what followed was repeat championships for the Red Wings, during which time Howe posted 13 goals and 29 points in 23 playoff games, including a nine-goal, 20-point run for the 1954-55 Cup
2. First 100-point season — at age 40
This past season, one 40-year-old suited up in the NHL. That was Jaromir Jagr, a legend in his own right, and he had a great season, netting 27 goals and 66 points. As good as that may be, though, it doesn’t come close to reaching Howe’s all-time mark for best season by a 40-plus-year-old player.
It’s not just that Howe holds the record for scoring as a 40-year-old, though, it’s that he has smashed all of the competition. Almost unthinkably, Howe’s highest scoring season of his career came when he was 40. During the 1968-69 campaign, Howe scored 44 goals and 103 points, marking the first time in his career he had eclipsed the 100-point plateau and putting him third in regular season scoring that campaign behind only Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito.
Howe’s incredible season came just two seasons before his first retirement, and it’s likely to stand forever as the most points scored in a single season by a player in his 40s. The closest any player has come to eclipsing Howe’s mark was Boston Bruins legend Johnny Bucyk, who racked up 36 goals and 83 points in 1975-76. The only 40-year-old to crack 80 points since Bucyk is Teemu Selanne, who recorded 31 goals and 80 points in 2010-11.
1. Howe lines up with Howe and Howe
For all the goals, points, Stanley Cups and individual accolades, Howe’s greatest accomplishment is being able to play long enough to suit up and skate alongside his sons in both the WHA and NHL.
Don’t agree? That’s fine, but we’re not about to disagree with Howe himself.
In celebrating Howe’s 82nd birthday, NHL.com’s Evan Weiner spoke to Howe and asked him about playing with his sons, Mark and Marty, first in the WHA and then in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers in Howe’s final season. Howe referred to it as the “greatest accomplishment and excitement” of his career.
The three Howes played together for six seasons in the WHA, first with the Houston Aeros and then with the New England Whalers, before the team was absorbed into the NHL ahead of the 1979-80 season. It was then Howe played his final season in the NHL and only campaign with his sons by his side.
‘Mr. Hockey’ played in every single game that final season, scoring 15 goals and 41 points as a 51-year-old. The final goal of his NHL career would be assisted on by his son, Mark: