Greats of the Game: Gordie Howe
By Chris Foreman, Featured Writer
A nickname is perhaps the most defining aspect of a player and his influence on the game. Mario Lemieux's arsenal of skills is so astonishing that fans have anointed him both "Super Mario" and "Le Magnifique." All-time National Hockey League leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky, is known simply as the "Great One."
However, the moniker fashioned by the man Gretzky adored as a youth is unsurpassable. I'm speaking of "Mr. Hockey," Gordie Howe.
Born Mar. 31, 1928, Howe left an indelible mark on the NHL before stepping aside, for good, at the age of 52. The embodiment of the term "power forward" before it became a staple in our puck lingo, Howe was a smooth skater with underrated speed.
He was a giant, both literally and figuratively, in his era, standing six-feet tall and tipping the scales at 205 pounds. Unlike many who today exhibit a one-dimensional game, Howe played a comprehensive brand, recognizing the significance of defense and team play.
The Floral, Saskatchewan native's lore spanned five decades and 32 professional seasons (1946-71; 73-80). Over that period, Howe revised dozens of NHL records, capturing the primary marks for games played (1,767), goals (802), assists (1,049), and points (1,850). Although Gretzky would later smash every conceivable account related to point-scoring, Howe still retains the top spot in both seasons (26) and games played, and most season-ending All-Star Teams (21; including 12 First-team selections).
In his professional tenure, including playoffs, Howe tallied a phenomenal 2,421 games, 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists and 2,589 points.
Regardless, his career nearly ended four years into its inception when Howe sustained a fractured skull in a playoff game. Howe zeroed in on Toronto Maple Leaf Ted Kennedy with the intent of knocking him off his skates. Instead, the Hall of Fame center had the foresight to stop short, while Howe, unable to halt his momentum, crashed head-first into the boards.
Following an operation to alleviate the tension on his brain, Howe returned to the game having earned a tic and the less-than-prestigious nickname, "Blinky."
The incident could have proven fatal, but it was this relentless, all-out style of play which separated Howe from his peers. Notoriously gritty in an age when the trait described the genre of play, Howe attained the handles "Mr. Elbows" and "Power" from his adversaries and teammates, respectively. A modern-day statistic which best-elucidates his methodology is the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick." Such a distinction encompasses a player who in a single game scores a goal, assists on another and engages in a fight.
Howe's epic career began in 1946 in Detroit, but could easily have originated three years earlier with the New York Rangers. The "Blue Shirts" invited the right wing to their workouts in Winnipeg as a 15-year-old, but he was homesick, and they felt he was too scrawny to play. He declined a scholarship to Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan.
A year later he attended Detroit's training camp, and would eventually work his way onto the roster after spending a season each with Junior franchises Saskatoon and Galt, and Omaha of the United States Hockey League.
Howe scored his first goal on Oct. 16, 1946. Eight-hundred more regular season NHL tallies followed before he hung up the skates in 1980. His accolades include six Hart Trophies as the league's Most Valuable Player, a half-dozen scoring championships and four Stanley Cup championships (1950, 52, 54, 55).
Howe shares much of his success with the many stars who played beside him. His early linemates on the "Production Line," Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, were each a Hall of Famer in his own right. Later, Howe joined another Hall of Fame duo, Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich. In addition, Bobby Hull teamed with him for nine games in Hartford in the final season for each.
It was the family reunion unit, however, which meant the most to Howe. Having stayed around long enough to acquire another nickname, "Gramps," Howe realized a feat that fathers and sons can only dream about. Gordie, and sons Mark and Marty, not only played on the same professional team (Houston Aeros), but conquered the World Hockey Association in winning two Avco Cups.
The opportunity seemed remote when Gordie retired, for the first time, in 1971. Nonetheless, after spending two miserable seasons in Detroit's front office in an insignificant role, Howe enlisted with the Aeros when Coach Bill Dineen asked him to give the game another try.
In 1977, the trio moved on to New England (now Hartford) and helped in legitimizing the franchise and the WHA. Howe's presence solidified the WHA and aided in causing the league's merger with the NHL for the 1979-80 campaign.
Howe participated in one final All-Star Game in 1980, a season in which he appeared in all 80 of Hartford's regular season games, an unimaginable feat for most before or after him, let alone at 52.
Inducted into Hockey's Hall of Fame in 1972, shattered records may tarnish Howe's legacy. However, Gordie exemplified the true definition of a hockey player: a classy competitor, an industrious worker, a fearless leader, and proud to represent himself, his organization and the city he played for. Long after we forget his statistics, those attributes are what will live on and be passed down to younger generations.
Gordie Howe is hockey.
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