Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockey!
Happy Birthday Gordie Howe!
You are 79 (on Saturday, March 31) and have a legacy that may never be topped in hockey ? or all sports for that matter.
There are so many stories about the guy who was simply called "Mr. Hockey" that it's almost impossible to figure out which is true and which is legend. Even Gordie himself isn't certain what stories really did occur, joking that he isn't sure if he is Gordie Howe or Paul Bunyan.
Of all the accomplishments in his life at the rink, the most memorable wasn't in a game that counted. Gordie Howe's biggest thrill came in a charity game in Detroit after he had retired following the 1970-71 season because of a wrist injury.
Coleen Howe arranged the game between the Red Wings and the Tier II Detroit Junior A Red Wings, a team that featured Gordie's sons, Mark and Marty. Howe played with his sons and thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened to him on the ice.
"I always refer to that has my greatest accomplishment and excitement," Howe said. "Let's put it this way, my wife Coleen took the Junior club and I joined the juniors and we played against the Red Wings, the parent club, and we raised a lot of money. It was a happy occasion and I was hoping at that time it was for real.
"And that reality came about when (coach) Bill Dineen and the Houston Aeros (of the World Hockey Association) drafted Marty and Mark off the list and my name got thrown into the hat later on."
Gordie Howe started playing professionally with his sons in 1973 and that actually caused a slight problem. Gordie was a great teammate, according to all who played with him, but he was also a parent and a patriarchal urge would take over at times. He was more concerned about his boys than himself on the ice, something Mark noticed quickly.
"My father's instincts were trying to set me up," Mark recalled of Gordie when the father first started playing with his boys. "I said; 'Shoot the dumb thing, I'll get my own.' He made my career very easy from that point on. I got 100 points that first year playing with him."
The Howe family had a great year in 1973-74 in Houston. Gordie was the WHA's MVP, Mark was the league's Rookie of the Year and Marty won the plus-minus award for the Houston Aeros.
"I helped him (Mark) with steadiness," Gordie said. "Mark had anticipation and sure hockey knowledge. In his first year, you could compare him (with "Production Line" left winger) Ted Lindsay. He just knows what I was thinking."
Gordie also helped Marty one night with a stunt that came straight out of a Three Stooges comedy skit that left Dineen, and virtually everyone on ice, laughing except for the victim, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Roger Cote.
"They (Mark and Marty) remember it more than I do, but one time Marty was on the ground and he was holding around somebody's arms and the guy (Cote) said; 'You can let me go.' Marty said; 'Yeah, I was born yesterday,'" Gordie recalled. "There was a fight and in those days of the WHA everybody showed up. I looked around and Marty was on his back on the ice and (Aeros captain and left wing) Teddy Taylor went over and tapped the guy and said; 'It's all over.' What he said, I couldn't repeat it. It is a little bilingual -- English and profanity -- so when that happened, it started up all over again. I made it a point to go over there and I said; 'It's all over.' And he said something about old, something, something, so, I don't know why I did it, but these two big fingers went into his nasal cavity and gave it a yank and he came up pretty fast. It was quite embarrassing. I just lifted him up and Marty said; 'Boy, the greatest thing was you should have seen the look on the guy's face.' It worked good.
"You do things out there and you don't know why. It was the one thing I thought of, where would I get the best respect? It was up the nostrils.
"I did a lot of things and Mark was such a student of the game whenever I did something, he said; 'What did you do that for?' I didn't have the answers." Howe had plenty of skill, but there was also an element of toughness to his game. Gordie Howe was a skilled player. But, he also was a tough guy who would do whatever it took to succeed on the ice and, apparently, had no idea why he played the way he did. There is something to the "Gordie Howe hat trick" -- a goal, an assist and a fight in a game -- but Howe didn't pay much attention to it. Ironically, Howe achieved the "Gordie Howe hat trick" just once in his career.
There was no rhyme or reason to his game, he was just playing hockey. He was a just a hockey player doing his job.
Frank Mahovlich played with Gordie and Alex Delvecchio in the late 1960s on the last incarnation of the Production Line. With the newly acquired Mahovlich in 1968-69, Howe had his best scoring season in then his 23rd season with 44 goals and 59 assists and topped the 100-point mark for the first time. Nearly four decades later, Mahvolich still looks up to Gordie Howe with profound respect.
"It was great to have Gordie on your side. He was a great competitor and it was easier being on his side than playing against him," recalled the Big M in October 2006. "He kind of dominated the play. When he got on the ice, that puck gravitated to his stick and he set the pace of the game. He could slow the game down, he could speed it; he could do what he liked with it. He was that good."
And he was a handful on ice, maybe the most imposing physical guy around during Mahovlich's playing days between 1956 and 1978 in both the NHL and WHA. Only a fool would mess with Gordie.
"Well, nobody wanted to fight with Gordie," said Mahovlich with a chuckle. "He had great elbows, he knew how to knock you down in the corners. He had all that technique pretty well down. When I got to play with him, he had already had 10 years in the league and when I got traded to Detroit, he was celebrating his 40th birthday. Can you believe that?
"He was an amazing athlete and when they talk about the great players, they've got to mention Gordie Howe. He was a top athlete, when you mention Gordie Howe you've got to compare him to all the athletes like him."
If Gordie Howe has one regret, it's that he has no good Stanley Cup stories.
"It was never lost, it was never dropped, it was never thrown away," Howe said. "I would honestly say nothing, maybe we were too subdued a group. I guess we were a little backwards."
There was only one Gordie Howe. He was the first to score more than 1,000 goals in pro hockey and played a total of 33 professional seasons. One in Omaha (1945-46) in the United States Hockey League, 25 in Detroit, six in the World Hockey Association before finishing off with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80. He played his last NHL All-Star Game in Detroit that season.
In all, he won six Hart Trophies as the NHL's MVP, led the NHL six times in scoring and was a member of four Stanley Cup teams in Detroit. But to Gordie, after playing with his boys, the numbers are just that ? numbers that he accumulated in a career.
"The goals weren't as important to me as the longevity," he said of his body of work that consists of both reality and legend.
Today, even Gordie sometimes wonders about which stories are real and which are exaggerated. One thing, however, is certain. Hockey is a lot richer because there was a Gordie Howe.