Every so often an athlete is so proficient and dominating at their game and possesses such an electric personality that they transcend their sport and become a cultural icon. Even more rare, a few of those cultural icons capture the imaginations of the public at large and become synonymous with their sport and achieve legendary status. The most famous example of this would be Babe Ruth and baseball. In boxing it was the late Mohammed Ali who passed away a week ago. In basketball it is Michael Jordan. In hockey it was Gordie Howe.
Gordie Howe passed away today at age 88 after a prolonged battle with dementia and difficulty with strokes. His later years were marred with health problems, but typical of his character Howe refused to lay down and accept defeat at the hands of father time. Instead, with his signature grit and determination which he exemplified over a professional career that spanned five decades, Howe figuratively dropped the gloves and went toe to toe with the undefeated adversary. Although it was a forgone conclusion Mr. Hockey still managed to pull the sweater over the head of father time and land a few stiff gut punches and uppercuts proving his mettle up until the end.
Mr. Hockey earned his moniker by excelling at the two most romanticized aspects of his sport: adept goal scoring and toughness. Addressing the latter, hockey is a real “man’s game”. In fact it may be the last now that the NFL continues to water down it’s product moving ever further away from the spirit of the sport. It is routine in pro sports today to see players go on the DL for thumb blisters or exit a game after a particularly vicious hit or collision. That trend has not carried over to hockey. It’s not only routine for an athlete to play hurt in the NHL, it’s expected. Rich Peverly is an excellent example of hockey’s reputation for toughness. Rich suffered a cardiac event on the Dallas Stars bench during a 2014 game in which he collapsed and clinically died. After being revived he requested to continue the game. Hockey is full of such examples of grit and it’s a trait that continues to be passed down from one generation to the next. Players like Gordie Howe set the standard which continues to be followed by NHL stars to this day.
Typically a gifted goal scorer has needed protection on the ice in the form of tough man line mates. Brett Hull had Tony Twist. Wayne Gretzky had Marty McSorely. These enforcers would protect a star player and ensure that the other team would avoid being to physical with them or risk disfigurement. Howe was more than capable of handling himself however and his reputation for never backing down in conjunction with his scoring prowess would generate the hockey term “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”. In hockey a hat trick is a colloquialism for a player who has scored three goals in a single game which is then celebrated by the crowd tossing hats onto the ice. A Gordie Howe hat trick describes a player who has scored a goal, an assist, and engaged in a fight in a single game.
Howe’s reputation as a fighter was cemented in a 1959 contest between the Red Wings and the New York Rangers at the old Madison Square Garden. Rangers defenseman Lou Fontinato was considered to be the toughest enforcer in the NHL at the time. His reputation was furthered by a Look magazine pictorial showing him flexing as well as game shots of him pounding opponents. For years Fontinato would work Howe over when the teams met.
“Whenever I went on the ice against the Rangers, the coach sent Fontinato out” said Howe. “The idea was to work on me and distract me. Once, it cost me because I forgot a valuable bit of advice Ted Lindsay gave me. He said don’t ever drop your stick until the other man does. So we get into one game and Louie says, ‘You want to drop your stick?’ and I said, ‘Hell, yes!’ and I threw it to the ice, and the guy hit me right over the head…about six stitches worth. He nailed me, and I stood there laughing over my stupidity, and Lindsay just shook his head.”
On a different occasion Fontinato delivered a vicious butt end with his stick to Gordie’s mouth. The blow split his lip and loosened a tooth. Fontinato would continue taunting Howe about his appearance throwing even more fuel onto the fire. After that, Howe vowed revenge and everything came to a head on February 1, 1959 when the visiting Detroit Red Wings squared off against the Rangers in New York.
An altercation began behind the Rangers net between Red Kelly and Eddie Shack. Howe had already entered the fracas on behalf of his teammate Kelly. Fontinato took the opportunity to charge into the fray skating straight at Howe in an attempt to land a charging punch. Howe ducked the punch and delivered the shot heard around the world. “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it. That first punch was what did it. It broke his nose a little bit” said Howe. He also recalled “I hit him so hard my finger came out of the joint.” Gordie then proceed to grab Fontinato’s jersey with his left hand while unloading a series of savage uppercuts with his right fist. The blows would not only break Fontinato’s nose but dislocate his jaw, send him to the hospital, and dismantle his reputation as hockey’s toughest man.
The February 16, 1959 edition of Life Magazine would chronicle the event, further adding to the mystique of Gordie Howe. According to the article referee Frank Udvari stated that the sound of Howe’s fist smashing into Fontinato’s face was like nothing he had ever heard before except for possibly the sound of wood chopping. That sentiment was echoed by a Red Wing’s teammate who described the blows as “whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.” Udvari would follow up with “all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone!”
After the altercation with Fontinato Howe didn’t have many fights. His toughness was respected and he also had a reputation for handing out receipts with his stick sometimes weeks or even years later. In a 1964 Sports Illustrated article it was said “he is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice.” One interesting story of revenge served cold involves Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bob Baun. In a 1957 game Baun took down Howe with a punishing blow. Gordie required assistance to get off the ice and back to the bench. Ten years later in 1967 Baun was playing defense for Oakland when Howe took a shot and caught Baun in the throat with his follow through. As Baun lay on the ice bleeding Howe stood over him and uttered “now we’re even”.
Even more impressive than his mastery of the stick and artistry with his fists was his ability to find the back of the net. Gordie Howe lit the lamp 801 times in his storied NHL career and he retired with league records in goals, assists, and points. A 23 time NHL All Star he ranked in the top 10 in NHL scoring leaders for 21 consecutive seasons winning the Art Ross trophy for being the league’s leading scorer six times. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player six times and also set a league record for most points in a single season. In addition to his numerous individual accomplishments he was also a four time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings.
If that weren’t enough, Mr. Hockey was also famous for his incredible longevity. Howe played in 26 NHL seasons, as well as six seasons with the WHA. In all he played 1,767 NHL games, 419 WHA games, and 52 minor league games for a grand total 2,238 pro hockey games spanning five different decades and he retired with the record for the oldest NHL player to lace up the skates (52 years 11 days in 1980 for the Hartford Whalers). How did Howe fare in his final season with the Whalers at over 50 years of age? He played in 80 games amassing 41 points and 42 penalty minutes. When asked about his incredible endurance Howe stated, “you’ve got to love what you’re doing. 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.” It’s quite evident that Howe loved the game of hockey.
Howe’s legend transcended the fanbase of the Detroit faithful and even hockey fans as he became a household name. Eventually it was trendy to wear a Howe jersey, even in markets where the Red Wings were rivals simply because everyone knew Gordie was unquestionably the man. The most memorable appearance of a Howe jersey in pop culture would have to be the 1980’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His likeness also made it into an episode of The Simpsons and various other TV shows and motion pictures.
Mr. Hockey was a fitting label for Gordie Howe. It insinuates that nobody in history has represented the game like he has. Gordie Howe was the very embodiment of the sport. He retired with more points than games played. He was gritty, physically and mentally tough, sometimes cheap yet also fair, and he had such a passion for the game that nobody has ever played it longer. It’s almost as if man created the concept of the sport and God crafted Gordie Howe to show the world what the ultimate hockey player could be. He will be truly missed.