Today, Friday, June 10th, Gordie Howe has died at the age of 88.
He was one of a very small group of hockey players — among them Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, and Mario Lemieux — whose name transcends time. Although he first played in the NHL in 1946 (that's 70 years ago!), if you care about the sport even just a little, then you've heard of him. He was so synonymous with the sport, that his nickname was "Mr. Hockey". It was a nickname he earned with his incredible career.
A history-making career
For most hockey players, a ten-year professional career is a very good one. Howe played 26 seasons in the NHL, 25 of them as a member of the Detroit Red Wings. He also played six seasons in the WHA (the World Hockey Association was a league from the 1970s that gave birth to present day NHL teams such as the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets). He won four Stanley Cups. He won the Hart (most points) and Art Ross (league MVP) trophies six times each. He's played the most games in NHL history (1,767), and was an All-Star 21 times. And we're only just getting started.
Gretzky's favourite player
Perhaps one of the most telling things about Gordie Howe was the influence he had on the players that followed him. He was Wayne Gretzky's favourite player as a kid. (In fact, Gretzky's famous number 99 was brought on when Wayne wanted to wear the same number as his idol, Howe — the number 9 — but a teammate already had claimed it. So he put two 9s together.) But Howe had something in his game for every kid to admire.
Love goals? For 23 straight years, he never scored less than 23 goals a season.
Love great passing? Howe was excellent there, too, using pinpoint accuracy to locate his teammates and rack up dozens of assists a year.
Love a tough checking game? Howe was feared on the ice for his elbows, which he used to check opponents hard.
Howe was the complete package, and nothing illustrates this better than the term that was coined to describe his game: instead of three goals in a game, the Gordie Howe Hat Trick was a goal, an assist, and a fight.
Oh, Howe he endured
Of course, hockey's history with fights and tough body checks has come under fire in the last ten years. And rightly so. We now know just how dangerous head injuries in sports like hockey and football can be, and hockey is working to change how the game is played to make it safer. But even in a changing league, a young Gordie Howe in 2016 would be every bit the superstar he was in the 1940s. He was fast, smart, tireless, skilled, courageous, strong, tall, and above all, a real gentleman.
Which is how so many people will remember him. Because even though the man played hockey forever (he played on the same WHA team with two of his sons, Mark and Marty, and is probably the only NHL player to have been a grandfather while playing), he still remained a selfless ambassador for the sport after he retired. As he watched Gretzky eventually break his records for most goals and points in a career, Howe showed no jealousy — only praise and humility.
He cared about hockey. And hockey cared about him.
May he rest in peace.