There’s little that can be written here about hockey legend Gordie Howe that hasn’t been stated elsewhere with more color, clarity and eloquence.
Howe, who died Friday at age 88, was the consummate all-around player: he could score, pass, defend and intimidate. He was the embodiment of what a hockey player should be: tough as a $2 steak, modest and always had time for fans, young and old.
You don’t get the nickname “Mr. Hockey” for nothing.
Howe broke into the NHL at age 18 and didn’t retire until he was 52. Over the years he suffered broken bones, concussions and had teeth knocked out. He was said to have received more than 500 stitched on his face alone during his career.
In 1950, he crashed into the boards during a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, fracturing his nose and cheekbone, and lacerating his eye. Only emergency surgery in which doctors were forced to drill a hole into Howe’s skull to relieve pressure on his brain saved the Floral, Saskatchewan, native’s life.
Howe responded the next season by leading the league with 43 goals and 86 points in 70 games. He would spend 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings and was among the league’s top-five scorers for 20 consecutive years.
When he was 50 years old – and playing with his sons in the rival World Hockey Association – he led his team in scoring with 96 points.
On top of all that, Howe, who grew up on the Canadian prairie, had a dry sense of humor, particularly on the ice, though opponents likely weren’t laughing along.
In the mid 1960s, Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins took the league by storm as a youngster with his gifted skating and playmaking ability. During a game between the Red Wings and Bruins, Howe sent the rookie hard to the ice with one of his infamous elbows when he felt Orr had been a bit too spirited.
“I’m a very religious player,” Howe explained when Orr asked him about the hit. “I think it’s much better to give than to receive.”
Stan Mikita, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Hall of Fame center, once told The Detroit Free Press what happened after he cut Howe under the eye early in his career.
“A couple of minutes later at the Olympia, we were both turning in the Wings’ end. The next thing I remember I was at the Chicago bench, my head is killing me. Our backup goalie, Denis DeJordy, said he was the only one in the building who saw what happened. Gordie had skated by me, slipped his right hand up under his armpit, pulled out his fist, popped me in the jaw and put his glove back on.
“A few shifts later, he ambled by and asked if I learned anything. I said, ‘Are we even?’ Gordie says, ‘I’ll think about it.’”