Gordie Howe, the fierce and prolific right winger with a heavyweight’s build who became known as “Mr. Hockey’’ in his halcyon days with the Detroit Red Wings largely through the 1950s and ’60s, has died. He was 88 years old.
Howe’s son, Murray Howe, confirmed that his father died Friday morning “peacefully, beautifully, and with no regrets.”
Known for his toughness on the ice — his trademark “Gordie Howe hat trick’’ consisted of a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game — as well as his mild manner and humility when not in uniform, Howe amassed a treasure chest full of National Hockey League scoring records that stood until most of them were surpassed decades later by the equally legendary Wayne Gretzky.
In his 25 seasons in Detroit, where he entered the league as a strapping, rawboned 18-year-old from Saskatchewan in 1946, Howe put his name on the Stanley Cup four times (1950, ’52, ’54, and ’55), won the scoring title (Art Ross Trophy) six times and another half-dozen seasons was named league MVP (Hart Trophy). He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
Howe, who still holds the record for most NHL games played (1,767), finished his career with 801 goals (second today only to Gretzky), 1,049 assists, and 1,850 points — the latter total ranking behind only Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887), and Jaromir Jagr (1,868). His career in the NHL and the rival World Hockey Association spanned an age-defying five decades, ending with the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, for whom he played with sons Marty and Mark, in 1980.
In his Detroit days, Howe’s No. 9 red-and-white sweater, fronted by its iconic Winged Wheel logo, grew over a quarter-century to become synonymous with the NHL, which in that era placed nearly as much a premium on tough play and fighting as it did on passing, shooting, scoring, and championships. Stanley Cup titles oft were the spoils of battle, and Howe, who also piled up 1,685 penalty minutes, was the muscle-shouldered best in breed who backed down from no one and charged relentlessly to the net.
It was his reputation for being both ornery as a bull and deftly skilled around the net — he could shoot from either the left or right side of his body — that helped him gain open space at the offensive end of the ice. Opposing checkers, valuing life, limb, and spleen, felt wiser to give berth to the mighty 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Howe. He was thick of build, fierce, feared, and gifted with a marksman’s eye, leading him to finish perennially at or near the top of the league scoring charts.
In Howe’s first game against the storied Montreal Canadiens, he knocked the great Maurice Richard unconscious, landing a retaliatory punch for what he deemed an overzealous push by the famed Rocket. Richard was 25 at the time, in his fifth season with Les Glorieux, and well on his way to gaining near-mythic stature in the province of Quebec.
“He is a better all-around player than I am,’’ Richard would go on to say.
Both Howe and Richard grew to be NHL legends, and it was true, Howe’s game was more complete, though of a vastly different brand than the pride of French Canada, who also wore No. 9 for the Habs. Richard, who died in 2000 at age 78, was fiery and prolific, often criticized for abandoning his defensive duties in his lust to score.
The more calculating Howe, deemed by many to be the perfect hockey player, saw defense and offense as an equal mission, grinding away at his craft with the single-mindedness of an automotive assembly line worker. In a town that built its reputation on producing Fords and Chevys, its population peaking at some 2 million not long after World War II, Detroit coveted Howe as one of its cherished brands.
The Wings won four Cups with Howe, with the likes of Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay his everyday partners on the aptly-named “Production Line.’’ The club made seven other trips to the Cup Final with Howe in the lineup, the last in 1966, just as the Bruins were about to begin their renaissance with the arrival of wunderkind defenseman Bobby Orr. After that, Howe’s teams qualified for the playoffs only once more before his last game with the Red Wings in 1971.
After a two-year stay in the Wings front office, Howe, then age 45, came out of retirement in 1973 to join sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros of the upstart WHA.
“If I failed badly,’’ Howe recalled years later, “people would remember me more for trying to make a stupid comeback . . . than for all the things I did in hockey.’’
Instead, and in part because of the junior league’s diluted competition, Howe continued to thrive, putting up numbers reminiscent of his thirtysomething days in Detroit. The Howes played four seasons in Houston, and the family patriarch twice reached the 100-point plateau and finished with 369 points in 285 games. The Aeros also won the league’s version of the Stanley Cup, the Avco Trophy, in the Howes’ first two seasons in Houston.
With Gordie at age 49, the Howes took their two-bladed brigade to Hartford of the WHA for the start of 1977-78 season. He finished with 96 points his first season and then combined for 84 more the following two seasons, finally calling it a career at age 52. His final season, 1979-80, was Hartford’s inaugural campaign in the NHL, the franchise melded into the senior league with the likes of Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Edmonton.
“This was not just any hockey player,’’ noted Whalers general manager Howard Baldwin in his book, “Slim and None,’’ “hanging on by his fingernails to spend a nostalgic year playing with his sons. There isn’t any question that Gordie Howe is the Babe Ruth of hockey.’’
Born March 31, 1928, in Floral, Saskatchewan, Gordon Howe was the sixth of nine children raised by Ab and Katherine Howe. Amid the Great Depression, the family moved to nearby Saskatoon, enabling Ab to work as a laborer. Young Gordie was somewhat less than a middling student, twice failing the third grade, and by age 16, with World War II drawing to a close, he left home to pursue hockey as a career.
The NHL did not adopt a formal entry draft until the 1960s, leaving most players of Howe’s era open to be courted by any of the league’s Original Six franchises (Boston, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, and Detroit). Similar to the Red Sox blowing their opportunity to sign Jackie Robinson, the Rangers watched the young Howe at one of their tryout camps in Winnipeg but failed to get him under contract.
A year later, the Red Wings signed him, quickly placed him with the minor league Omaha Knights, then promoted him to Detroit for the start of the following season. On Oct. 16, 1946, Howe made his Red Wings debut, denting the net for the first of those 801 goals.
Combining his NHL and WHA days, Howe played a total 32 seasons and 2,186 games, amassing 975 goals, 1,383 assists and 2,308 points. He also played a single game in the 1997-98 season with the IHL Detroit Vipers, enabling him to say he played professional hockey in a sixth decade.
Though it seems unlikely, Howe himself recorded only two “Gordie Howe hat tricks” (goal, assist, fight), and they came early in his career — one in October 1953 and the other in March 1954. Proving, of course, just how hard it is to score from the penalty box.
Howe suffered a stroke in late October 2014, losing some function on the right side of his body. He suffered another stroke a short time later, and family members said chronic back pain, advanced stages of dementia, and high blood pressure were taking a toll.
Howe was predeceased by his wife of 55 years, Colleen, who succumbed to Pick’s disease, an aggressive form of dementia, in 2009 at age 76. She was both his life partner and business manager, in large part the force behind having her husband’s nickname, “Mr. Hockey,” copyrighted.
The Howes are survived by their three sons, Mark (also a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame), Marty (who played briefly with the Bruins), and Murray, a radiologist; and daughter Cathy, who lives in Lubbock, Texas.