As the sports world mourned the loss of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, another sport is mourning the loss of one of their greatest of all time.
Hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, known affectionately around the world as “Mr. Hockey”, passed away on Friday morning at the age of 88. Howe, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, had been battling health issues for the last several years, including a major stroke in 2014.
Howe, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest players to lace up a pair of skates, made his NHL debut in 1946 with the Detroit Red Wings as a 17-yeard old rookie. Howe quickly established himself as a gifted player who can shoot, pass, and score. He also displayed a willingness to fight as well.
Howe fought so often during his rookie season that his head coach, Ted Lindsay, said to him “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?” Howe would spend the next three and a half decades answering Lindsay’s question with an extremely emphatic “Yes”. Howe spent the first 25 years of his career with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring in 1971, although his career almost came to a crashing halt during the 1950 playoffs.
In a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Howe missed an attempted check into the boards and fractured his skull. The injury was so severe that Howe required emergency surgery on his skull to help alleviate the pressure. Howe not only returned for the following season, but he finished with 86 points and won the scoring title by 20 points.
Howe battled arthritis in his wrist later in his NHL career. The pain was so severe that Howe ultimately retired from the NHL in 1971.
Howe would then make a return to hockey two years later in the newly formed WHL with the Houston Aeros, alongside his sons Mark and Marty. Howe signed on for one last season – at 51 years old – with the Whalers, now of the NHL, for the 1979-80 season before retiring for good. Howe still managed to play in all 80 games that season.
On the ice, the stats rank among the best in nearly every category. In his long, illustrious, career, Howe amassed 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists, and 2,589 points in 2,421 games played. He was an All-Star for 25 seasons and won the NHL scoring title in four straight seasons. Howe’s pension to fight early in his career led to the coining of the term “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”, which is a goal, assist, and fight all in one game.
Howe wore #17 his rookie season, however Ray Conacher left to join the Chicago Blackhawks, which left his jersey number, 9, open. Howe had not requested a uniform change, but after learning that the number 9 would entitle him to a lower Pullman berth (a bunk) on read trips he decided to switch to the number that would define him for the rest of his career.
Howe’s legacy as one of hockey’s most ferocious players will be remembered forever. The Red Wings retired Howe’s legendary #9 in 1972, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame the same year.
Howe is survived by his sons Marty, Mark (himself a Hall of Fame defenseman in the NHL), Murray, and daughter Cathy along with nine grandchildren and one great- grandchild.
Before Bobby Clarke, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux, there was Gordie Howe. Although there have been many legends, icons, and superstars in the NHL, there was, and always will be, only one “Mr. Hockey”.