Former professional hockey player Gordie Howe (born 1928) earned the distinction of the most durable player of all time, playing 26 seasons spanning five decades in the National Hockey League, and during that time was one of the game's most prolific scorers.
When Gordie Howe broke the National Hockey League (NHL) scoring record of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the debate among hockey buffs was whether Richard or Howe was the best player of all time. Years later when Wayne Gretzky broke Howe's record, the debate was renewed, this time Gretzky versus Howe. Gretzky himself declared to Hal Quinn of Maclean's that Howe "is the best hockey player there ever was." Howe, for his part, told Jay Greenberg of Sports Illustrated, "If you want to tell me [Gretzky's] the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."
Howe was born in Floral, Saskatchewan on March 31, 1928. He was the fifth of nine children. At three months of age, his family moved to nearby Saskatoon where his father was a mechanic, laborer, and construction worker. The family was poor as many of their neighbors were during the Great Depression. Once when a neighbor was selling some used belongings to get some cash, Howe gained his first pair of skates. "She had a sack of stuff my mother bought for 50 cents, " Howe recalled, reported Larry Batson in his book Gordie Howe. "I dug into it and found some secondhand skates. I grabbed a pair for myself. They were so big I had to wear a couple extra pairs of socks." He was then about five years old.
Howe immersed himself in hockey, playing day in and day out throughout the year, using a puck, tennis ball, or even clumps of dirt. He was a big boy but was initially clumsy. He did not make it the first time he tried out for a local midget team. By the time he was 12 years old, however, Howe had developed into an excellent skater.
During the summers, Howe worked with his father at construction sites. He described it as "throwing concrete, " noted Batson. The heavy work helped give him the exceptional strength that he would use to develop one of the fastest shots in hockey. At the age of 15, Howe was a 6-foot 200-pounder, very big at that time for a hockey player.
Howe had already caught the eye of the professional scouts and, when he was 15, the New York Rangers invited him to a tryout camp. The camp director, though, was unimpressed. "You're too awkward, son, " he remarked to Howe, reported Batson. "You'll never make the major leagues." Despite this rejection, the next year Howe landed a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. Jack Adams, coach and general manager of the team, was definitely impressed by young Howe and signed him to a contract.
There was just one snag in the contract negotiations with Howe. Adams recalled, as Roy MacSkimming wrote in Saturday Night, "He looked at [the contract] but didn't sign it. So I asked him what was wrong, wasn't it enough money? He just looked at me and said 'I'm not sure I want to sign with your organization, Mr. Adams. You don't keep your word. You promised me a windbreaker and you never gave it to me.' You can imagine how quickly I got that windbreaker."
Howe, then 17 years old, was assigned to the Red Wings' minor-league farm team in Omaha, Nebraska. He had an excellent season and the next year was given a shot at making the major-league club. He made the Red Wings and in his first game gave a glimpse of what was to come. "Gordon Howe is the squad's baby, 18 years old, " Paul Chandler wrote about the contest, as E.M. Swift of Sports Illustrated related. "But he was one of Detroit's most valuable men last night. In his first major league game, he scored a goal, skated tirelessly and had perfect poise. The goal came in the second period, and he literally powered his way through the players from the blue line to the goalmouth."
It was in 1947 that new Red Wings' coach Tommy Ivan put together the Production Line, a forward line consisting of Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Sid Abel. According to MacSkimming, it was "the most successful, exciting, and dominant attacking line of its era." The three had an "instinctive rapport."
It took Howe three seasons to "mature" as a professional, wrote William Barry Furlong of the New York Times. He scored a total of 35 goals those first three years "or as many goals as he scored in his fourth year alone." From that point on, Howe was a consistent scorer. "Beginning in 1949-50, " Swift noted, "Gordie Howe started a string in which for 20 consecutive years—two solid decades—he finished among the top five scorers of the NHL."
In 1950, though, Howe's career almost came to an abrupt end. In the first playoff game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Howe collided with Toronto's Ted Kennedy and flew head first into the sideboards. His skull was fractured and he suffered a concussion. He also had his cheekbone and nose broken. In the hospital, surgeons had to operate to relieve the pressure on his brain. He was in critical condition for days.
The next season Howe came back. The question was, would he still have the same fire and aggressiveness that he had before? Howe responded by playing in every game and by leading the NHL in goals, assists, and total points that season.
Leading the league in scoring became a regular occurrence for Howe. He won the scoring title six times. He was selected the NHL's Most Valuable Player six times. Howe's emergence as a star also led to his team's emergence as a consistent winner. From 1949 to 1955, the Detroit Red Wings won the league title seven straight times and were Stanley Cup playoff champions four times.
In 1951, Howe met Colleen Joffa at a bowling alley where the players liked to hang out. Afterwards, reported Batson, the owner asked her, "How did you like meeting a celebrity?" "Who's a celebrity?" she answered. She had never heard of Howe. However, she did see and hear from him quite often after that, and in 1953, the two were married. They would eventually have four children: Martin, Mark, Cathy, and Murray. The boys soon became involved in youth hockey.
Throughout his career, Howe was a proponent of "what he called 'religious hockey': it's better to give than to receive, " wrote Trent Frayne of Maclean's. He was a feared figure on the ice. "Due to his sharp elbows and quick stick, foes considered him sneaky-mean and steered clear of even accidental altercations, " Joe LaPointe of Sport magazine noted. "Howe is everything you'd expect the ideal athlete to be, " an opposing player said to Furlong. "He's soft-spoken, deprecating and thoughtful. He's also the most vicious, cruel and mean man I've ever met in a hockey game." But another hockey great, Bobby Hull of the Chicago Black hawks, defended Howe. Hull asserted, wrote Jim Vipond in his book Gordie Howe Number 9, "Howe is not the demon some people say. If you want to play hockey, he'll play. He just wants to play hockey, but if guys want to fool around they always come out second best."
With the flying elbows and flying pucks of hockey, and no helmets during this time, facial cuts and stitches were a very normal hazard of the game. Howe estimated that he had received 300 stitches in his face, Furlong reported. "I had 50 stitches in my face one year—that was a bad year, " Howe said. "I had only 10 stitches taken last year—that was a good year."
Howe surpassed Maurice Richard's scoring record in 1963. By the time he retired from the Red Wings in 1971, at the age of 43, he had the records for goals, assists, and total points. He also had the record for most games played. He accepted a job in the team's front office. But, in 1973, when the Houston Aeros of the new World Hockey Association (WHA) signed his sons Marty and Mark, Howe asked about joining them. Playing on the same professional team as his sons had been a dream. He got himself back into shape and returned triumphantly, scoring 100 points, winning the league's Most Valuable Player award, and leading his team to the WHA championship.
Howe continued to play in the WHA through 1977. He moved to the Hartford Whalers and when that club was merged into the NHL in 1978, he was back for a second tour of duty in his old league. Howe's autobiography, And … Howe!: An Authorized Autobiography was published in 1995. He continued to make special appearances playing in charity games well into the 1990s.
Asked once why he kept playing, Furlong wrote, Howe remarked, "Well, the hours are good and the pay is excellent." And of his incredibly long career, he told Swift, "One of my goals was longevity: I guess I've pretty much got the lock on that." In September of 1997, at the age of 69, Howe announced he would play one game, the October 3 season opener, with the International Hockey League's Detroit Vipers. This would make him the only professional hockey player to play in six consecutive decades.
Batson, Larry, Gordie Howe, Amecus Street, 1974.
Vipond, Jim, Gordie Howe Number 9, Follett Publishing Company, 1968.
Maclean's, October 23, 1989, p. 62.
Maclean's, March 21, 1994, p. 49.
Furlong, William Barry, The New York Times Encyclopedia of Sports, Arno Press, 1979, pp. 165-167.
Saturday Night, November, pp. 62-68, 96.
Sport, May 1989, p. 60.
Sports Illustrated, October 23, 1989, pp. 50-53.