DETROIT (AP) — Gordie Howe worked all his remarkable life to earn the respect and awe that came with being “Mr. Hockey.”
The Canadian farm boy who developed his brute strength and incredible stamina on the Saskatchewan prairie could put his team ahead with a timely goal or even the score with opponents with his elbows and fists. Away from the rink, Howe worked just as hard to become one of the most likable superstars in any sport.
If there is anything hockey reveres, it’s hard work. Few brought more of that to the game than Howe, whose boundless blend of talent and toughness made him the NHL’s quintessential star during a career that lasted into his 50s. He died Friday at the age of 88 surrounded by family members after a storied career that included four Stanley Cup championships.
“Mr Hockey left peacefully, beautifully, and w no regrets,” Murray Howe said in a text to The Associated Press, adding that his father died simply of “old age.”
The Detroit Red Wings, Howe’s longtime team, said Howe died in Sylvania, Ohio, at the home of Murray Howe. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Howe shattered records, dropped gloves and threw elbows while helping the Red Wings win those four championships. He became an idol for many and is credited with helping the sport attract American fans in a development key to the league’s growth.
“When Gordie came into the NHL, hockey was a Canadian game. He converted it into a North American game,” former NHL President Clarence Campbell said when Howe retired the first time in 1971 because he was playing with arthritis in his left wrist and for a last-place team.
With finesse and a heavy dose of grit, the Hockey Hall of Famer set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — that held up until Gretzky came along.
The Great One himself left no doubt about what he thought of Howe.
“Unfortunately we lost the greatest hockey player ever today, but more importantly the nicest man I have ever met,” Gretzky tweeted.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman lauded “the incomparable” Howe as a remarkable athlete with incredible longevity.
“Gordie’s commitment to winning was matched only by his commitment to his teammates, to his friends, to the Red Wings, to the city of Detroit and — above all — to his family,” Bettman said.
Mr. Hockey was a giant of the game and no list of the NHL’s greatest players has him anywhere but near the top alongside players like Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull and Gretzky. Like few others, Howe’s impact on the game stretched over decades.
Howe also was so talented and tough that a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” became synonymous with the combination of having a goal, an assist and a fight in one game.
“The list of hockey players who suited up in six different decades, including returning to the ice after being inducted into the Hall of Fame, is a short one: it starts and ends with Gordie Howe,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “But the list of kids who skated around the pond until dark, picturing themselves passing, scoring, and enforcing like Howe, dreaming of hoisting the Stanley Cup like him — that one comprises too many to count.”
Besides the four Cups, the talented right winger won six Hart Trophies as NHL MVP and six Art Ross Trophies as the league’s top scorer. Howe began playing for the Red Wings in 1946, leading them to seven straight first-place finishes in the regular season. He was a part of what was known as “The Production Line” with fellow future Hall of Famers Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel during his 25-year run with the franchise.
“No one in their right mind ever wanted to tangle with him,” Lindsay has said. “Gordie had a lethal pair of elbows, was strong as a moose and knew every angle.”
Howe handled his business with his elbows and fists almost as often as he did with wrist and slap shots. He ranked among the NHL leaders in penalty minutes three times, spending 100-plus minutes in the penalty box during those seasons. When he resumed playing as a parent with sons on the same sheet of ice, opponents often found out not to mess with his boys.
“If I can skate, I’ll get even,” Howe once said.
Howe needed more than 400 stitches to close cuts, lost several teeth, broke ribs and his nose. He had a serious head injury in 1950 that led to emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Despite the blood and broken bones, he didn’t miss many games during his NHL-record, 1,767-game career and played in all 80 during his final season.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing,” Howe once said. “If you love it, you can overcome any handicap or the soreness or all the aches and pains, and continue to play for a long, long time.”
Mark Howe said his father was “the toughest, meanest guy I’ve ever seen on a pair of skates,” and that’s why he was able to play for decades.
Gordon Howe was born March 31, 1928, in tiny Floral, Saskatchewan, and raised nearby on the prairie in Saskatoon. His father was a laborer and Howe pitched in early, growing strong with the work. Mark Howe said his dad was born in a barn and the family scuffled along through the Depression.
“Someone was going door to door, selling bags of stuff for $1 and in one of those bags, dad got his first pair of skates,” Mark Howe once told The AP.
Howe left as a teenager to pursue a hockey career. Howe made his NHL debut for the Red Wings when he was 18. In Howe’s second season, he was an All-Star for the first of a record 23 times, including two in the World Hockey Association.
“Finally, I saved enough to buy my mom and dad a brand new home — with running water,” he once recalled. “I think that’s the biggest thing I ever achieved. That’s what I wanted, and I saved my money to buy it.”
Howe was 6-foot and 205 pounds during his career, bigger than most players. His ability to skate, shoot and pass made him a threat every time he had the puck. No one, according to Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, could match Howe’s style of play.
After his initial retirement, Howe’s wife, Colleen, orchestrated a plan to get “Mr. Hockey” back on the ice two years later. She helped him live his dream of playing professional hockey with sons Mark and Marty in the WHA. And at age 45, Howe still had it. He scored 31 goals and had 69 assists, was named MVP of the NHL’s rival league and led the Houston Aeros to the 1973 WHA title — a run that was the focus of a movie: “Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story.”
Howe had 41 points for the Hartford Whalers during the 1979-80 season in what was his 26th and final year in the NHL.
When Howe finally retired for good from the NHL, he was 52 and Gretzky was a rookie. With a single shift with the Detroit Vipers in the International Hockey League in 1997, Howe played professionally in a sixth decade at the age of 69. He referred to his play as “poetry in slow motion” late in his career, a far cry from his score-and-smash style.
Howe surpassed Richard’s NHL record of 544 goals in 1963. After the turn of the century, Howe, his sense of humor in full gear, would walk around Joe Louis Arena in Detroit carrying a teacup poodle named Rocket. Howe ranked among the top five in scoring for 20 straight seasons.
Gretzky would later break his records for goals, points, MVP trophies and scoring titles while wearing No. 99 in a tribute to Howe, who wore No. 9 during a lower-scoring era of the game. He finished his career in 1999 with 894 goals.
“I thought I had something they would never touch,” Howe said. “But I knew when they started scoring 80 goals in a season I was in trouble.”
Mark Messier reached 1,887 points in 2004 during his 25th NHL season and pushed Howe from second to third in the record books.
“I haven’t celebrated coming in second too many times in my life,” Messier said then. “But I’ll tell you, because of what Gordie has done, for us mere mortals who have played this game, being No. 2 is not so bad.”
Summit Series hero Paul Henderson played with and against Howe.
“He was built to be a hockey player,” Henderson said. “He was strong as an ox. He was mean as a rattlesnake and you treaded lightly when you came around him. He had a very heavy shot and a soft touch. Old-school hockey. That was Gordie Howe.”
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland called Howe “one of the greatest players, if not the greatest,” in NHL history.
“As a human being, he was incredible,” Holland added. “He loved to be around people and to make them laugh. He was an incredible ambassador for the sport.”
Howe suffered a stroke in late October 2014 while at his daughter’s home in Lubbock, Texas, 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. The body Howe relied on as an athlete stayed relatively strong, but memory loss became a problem that family members noticed before the death of their mother in 2009.
A year before his death, Murray Howe said, his father was “comfortable and happy” after having another round of stem cell therapy in Mexico. Howe participated in a clinical trial, which the family credited with helping him walk and do some of things he enjoyed, including making people laugh. The previous year before starting stem cell therapy, Howe told his family he wanted to die.
Howe, clearly, was most proud of his family. He raved about Colleen, whom he married in 1953. They became personal and professional partners as the woman known as “Mrs. Hockey” championed the game for children and later became her husband’s agent.
She died in March 2009 at age 76 after battling Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s.
Their children, Murray, Mark, Marty and Cathy, each took turns having him sleep at their houses for weeks or months at a time after their mother died. When asked about his legacy, playing with his sons was what Howe said he was most proud of from his career.
“The fact that I had an opportunity to skate five years with them,” Howe told the AP in 2011, “I think that’s every father’s dream.”