Fans love to argue about the greatest teams and players in their favorite sports. For hockey fans, that debate tends to center around Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, but there’s no denying the greatness and longevity of the man who dominated the sport for decades.
Gordie Howe, who died yesterday at the age of 88, didn’t just dominate pro hockey, he embodied the game. Hence the nickname Mr. Hockey, of course, but the Saskatchewan native combined all the attributes of an ideal player: Power, sublime skill, finesse, a mean streak and class. Those last two were often at odds because Howe wouldn’t hesitate to drill you with one of those massive elbows or drop the gloves if you were out of line.
Howe played in an era where nobody wore a helmet (though he played long enough that he was one of the last to not wear one). He was a brawny farm boy who combined brute strength with offensive smarts and an occasionally nasty disposition. And even though it has been 36 years since he played in the NHL, the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” (when you get a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game) is still used regularly.
Howe played 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings from 1946-1971 before retiring, leading the Wings to four Stanley Cups and racking up incredible scoring achievements; he was in the top 5 league scorers for a ridiculous 20 straight years. But after a year of retirement (and induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame), he came back to play in the new World Hockey Association, a rival to the NHL that lured established stars like Howe and Bobby Hull with the promise of higher salaries. Another attraction for Howe was getting to play with his sons Mark and Marty on the Houston Aeros (and later the New England/Hartford Whalers). Now in his 40s, Howe led the team to consecutive championships and continued to score at an impressive pace. The WHA folded in 1979 and the Whalers were one of the four teams absorbed by the NHL, which allowed Howe to play one final NHL season at the age of 51. He played all 80 games and scored a respectable 15 goals and 26 assists before hanging up his skates for good.
I’m old enough to have seen Howe play on TV as a kid for the Whalers, but the memories are hazy now. Obviously, I never saw him in his prime, just like I never saw Orr until his last hurrah in the 1976 Canada Cup. I grew up on Gretzky and his obliteration of the record books (mostly Howe’s records) in the ’80s and ’90s. And later came players like Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but to me, it always comes back to Gretzky, Howe and Orr.
I’ve always felt Gretzky was the greatest of all time, but Howe was a close second. Gretzky’s biggest influence was Howe, even though their games were polar opposites. Gretzky left the hitting and fighting to bigger guys; he was more concerned about putting the puck in the net. Whereas Howe went to all the dirty areas of the ice and could beat you with his stick or his fists. In his later years, Howe built the Mr. Hockey brand and became a pop culture icon long after his playing career ended. He was a prominent part of a classic Simpsons episode, his jersey was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by director/longtime fan John Hughes, and he appeared in ESPN promos. And he was the ultimate ambassador for hockey, appearing at countless events and always approachable to fans and non-fans alike.
Gordie Howe represented a bygone era, when the game was primarily played by Canadians, but he also played a large role (along with Gretzky) in introducing the game to Americans. Was he the greatest of all time? Maybe. To me, he transcended the world of statistics. Gordie Howe WAS hockey. Pure and simple.