When The Hockey News was putting together its list of the top 50 players of all-time in 1998, Wayne Gretzky was the overwhelming No. 1 choice. When Bobby Orr found out he was at No. 2, he pointed out that he thought Gordie Howe should be ahead of him. That two of the greatest players in the history of the game – Gretzky and Orr – have Gordie Howe No. 1 on their all-time lists, speaks volumes of Howe’s sustained excellence. No player, ever, did it as well for as long as Gordie Howe, who died today at the age of 88 at his son Murray's home in Sylvania, Ohio. With advanced dementia and having suffered a recent stroke, Mr. Hockey finally met an opponent he could not overcome with the sheer strength of body and character that he displayed for five decades in the game.
Howe’s mark on hockey was indelible. No player in the history of the game, until Mark Messier came along, combined sublime ability and physical ruthlessness the way Howe did. It is an enduring testament to Howe that, even though he had only two games in his entire career when he had a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game, that particular feat is known as a Gordie Howe hat trick. Howe is, in fact, considered a pioneer in two leagues. In the NHL, he was a superstar of the 1950s and was the only player of his time to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was just as integral as Bobby Hull in establishing the fledgling World Hockey Association as a force, joining the league in 1973-74 at the age of 45 to play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros. He scored 100 points that season and went on to play five more seasons in the renegade league before returning to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80 at the age of 51. In terms of popular culture, there is not a player from the Original Six Era who comes even close to Howe’s popularity. In the 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Alan Ruck’s character Cameron Frye spends much of the film wearing Howe’s No. 9 Detroit Red Wings sweater. And Howe is prominent in a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, when Bart Simpson creates a fictional character named Woodrow from a picture of Gordie Howe. There may not have been a player whose on-ice demeanor contrasted his off-ice personality more than Howe. To be kind, Howe was a brutal piece of work on the ice and in the corners. His elbows were lethal tools in his physical arsenal, but it was his sheer strength that made his foes cower. When Eric Lindros was a teenager, Howe came to visit his home in Toronto and when Lindros came to answer the door, Howe held it closed. Lindros could not pull the door open. “He’s just so stinking strong,” Lindros said at the time. Off the ice, however, Howe was one of the most giving, easy-going people on the planet. He always made time for kids and autograph seekers. When players sign autographs now, they’re barely legible, but Howe meticulously made sure his signature was impeccable every time. In fact, he was kind-hearted and soft to a fault, something that history shows Detroit Red Wings former GM Jack Adams exploited in contract negotiations. Nobody saw the gentle side of Howe more than Felix Gatt, who was an autograph hound in the 1950s who became one of Howe’s closest confidants and friends later in life. Howe rarely went anywhere later in life without Gatt by his side and Gatt was involved in many of Howe’s business dealings. Gatt remembers a time when he had a Red Wings program of the Red Wings in the 1950s and was attempting to get every player on the team to sign it. He had success with everyone but Red Wings Hall of Fame goalie Terry Sawchuk, who let Gatt know in no uncertain terms that he would never sign the photograph. “Terry Sawchuk was always miserable and I would ask him, ‘Will you sign this for me?’ and he would just say ‘F--- off, kid,’ ” Gatt said. “All I needed was him and he wouldn’t sign it. One night, Gordie was right behind him and he said, ‘You know, Jack Adams tells us to be good to the fans. You sign this for the kid or I’m going to break both your arms and legs and you’ll never play hockey again.’ Terry took it from me and he was cursing me, but he signed it and I still have it today.” Born March 31, 1928 in Floral, Sask., just 18 months before the Great Depression began, Howe was one of nine children. As a youngster, Howe suffered from what was a mild case of dyslexia and endured endless teasing from other children, who called him ‘Dummy’ and taunted him for his easy-going demeanor, which they interpreted as a lack of intelligence. “Kids, you know, can be cruel as hell,” Howe once said, “but when I got bigger I made sure it stopped.” The Howes were too poor to afford hockey equipment, but Gordie Howe’s life changed when a woman sold the family all her possessions so she could buy food, and included in the bag of items was a pair of skates. Howe was six feet tall by his mid-teens and developed a powerful frame. He was first noticed by a New York Rangers scout when he was 15, but left a tryout camp in Winnipeg because he was homesick before Detroit signed him. Howe made his debut with the Red Wings in 1946-47, fighting twice and scoring once in his first two games. Teaming later with Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel to form The Production Line, Howe went on to win six scoring championships and Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player and was named a first-team all-star 12 times. At one point during the 1940s and ‘50s the first-team right winger was either Rocket Richard or Howe for 14 straight seasons. While Howe was piling up points and winning Stanley Cup championships for the Red Wings, he was clearly being exploited by his employers. In 1969, Howe learned he was the third-highest paid Red Wing and, largely because of his wife Colleen, earned a raise of $100,000. Howe retired from the Red Wings in 1971, but came back to the game two years later when, again with Colleen directing things, he joined his sons with the Aeros in the WHA.
And here’s probably the most interesting statistic in the comparison between Howe and Wayne Gretzky, the greatest goalscorer of all-time. At the NHL level, Gretzky outscored Howe by an 894-801 margin, but when you combine both their regular season and playoff totals in both the NHL and WHA, Gretzky edges Howe by only one goal, 1,072-1,071. (Gretzky, however, accumulated his totals in 633 fewer games.) Howe retired from the game for good in 1980, coming out to play one game for the Detroit Vipers of the International League in 1998, in part as a publicity stunt and in part to lay his claim to fame as the only player in hockey history to play a game in a professional league in six different decades. In his retirement years, Howe and Colleen were at the helm of Power Play International, which handled Howe’s public appearances and finances. The company fell into disarray and had to be saved by his sons when Colleen began suffering the effects of Pick’s disease in the early 2000s, an affliction that took her life in 2009. Even with all his trials and tribulations, Howe never lost his sense of humor in his later years. At one point he got a new dog which he named ‘Rocket’ because he claimed it looked like Rocket Richard. “Rocket said to him, ‘You named your dog after me?’ ” Gatt said. “And Gordie said, ‘Yeah, Rocket, but I love my dog.’ ” The Hockey News named Howe the No. 3 player of all-time when it did its definitive list of the top 100 players of all-time, but there are many observers who feel that Howe’s combination of skill and longevity make him the greatest of all-time. We have no idea how Orr and Gretzky feel about where they should personally be ranked, but it’s telling that both think Howe, and not the other, should be considered the greatest player ever. Howe, as a player and a person, was probably best described by an anonymous opponent in a story that appeared in the Red Wings program in the 1960s. “He is everything you expect an ideal athlete to be,” the player said. “He is soft-spoken, self-deprecating and thoughtful. He is also one of the most vicious, cruel men I have ever met in a hockey game.”