Forever Mr. Hockey
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
One of my first assignments when working for iHeartMedia Grand Rapids was to write about Gordie Howe's passing. The funny thing?
He was still fighting for his life.
Howe had a suffered a significant stroke in October 2015, and it had gotten to a point where hockey fans and media types were getting ready to say good-bye to a legend. I was tasked with writing a memorial for him to be posted on ESPN 961 (which, awkwardly enough, I would soon be producing various events and soon a drive time radio show on), to be posted when he passed.
Howe rallied, though, thanks to some experimental treatments and physical therapy, and my article was shelved for the time being. The following June Howe passed away, and a legion of hockey followers mourned. My article was posted, the response was incredible, and it helped me process some of the guilt I harbored over writing this piece while the man was still around.
Hell, I even found that Reddit -- the cultivator of hasty judgements and intense online dismissals -- accepted it.
But in time I left the company to follow my wife's dream up North, and after a restructuring of the ol' stomping grounds, ESPN 961 erased/took down a score of my pieces. I'm not angry at them, as rebranding requires reshuffling, and what good does a former employee's articles do? However, I still really like this piece and want to share it again here:
Although he had met the woman before, Gordie Howe couldn’t quite place it.
It had been several years earlier, at a grocery store in Traverse City, when he politely asked Barbara Stoye if she knew where they sold Ovaltine. She helped him as best she could, he thanked her, and she went home to tell her grandsons about the nicest hockey player she’d met.
Years later, she was standing in line at a memorabilia shop with a Gordon Howe bobblehead for her oldest grandson. She asked if he’d be so kind as to sign it for her, and told him of their shared grocery experienced.
With the lightbulb finally flashing over his head, he took the figurine out of the box and signed it with his name and career totals. He began to put it back into its package when he stopped, pulled it back out, and spat into the plastic molding. He winked at her as he placed it carefully into the box and said, “There, now it’s official!”
More than anything, more than a fierce competitor, more than a loyal teammate, more than the greatest player to ever lace up skates, Gordie Howe was a hero to the people of Detroit, and to the state of Michigan. His brutish physical play was the opposite of the man off the ice – thoughtful, introspective, kind, humorous. The man whose elbows could crack jaws could easily wrap around a young fan, like Wayne Gretzky, and effortlessly coax a smile. The people of Michigan knew him as Mr. Hockey – who wouldn’t? – but they also knew him for a man of the people, and his adopted state and everyone in it revered him.
At one point, Gordie Howe was the NHL recordbook, holding the majority of all the scoring records. To this day he still holds the records for most goals and points by a right winter (801, 1,850), most NHL regular season games played (1,767), most games played for one team (1,687), most consecutive 20-goal seasons (22), most All Star appearances (23), and oldest player to play in the NHL (52 years old – take that, Chris Chelios!). He’s the Detroit Red Wings all-time leading scorer in multiple categories, and with a shift played for the Detroit Vipers he became the only human being ever to play professional hockey in six different decades.
Yet before all that he was a large, slightly gumpy young man who didn’t even start playing hockey until he was 8 years old in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Gangly at first, Howe grew into his frame and found his place on the ice, eventually capturing the attention of scouts by the time he turned 15. At 17 he was a professional hockey player, and that was the only vocation he’d ever have to learn.
In 1946 Howe was called up to play for the Detroit Red Wings, and posted a rookie season full of mistakes, trepidation, and the occasional flash of staggering potential. Playing occasionally on a line with Sid Abel and Adam Brown, he put up seven goals and 15 assists, and used the bulk of his early-season ice time getting into fights to compensate for his teetering confidence.
Yet it wasn’t until Howe suffered a nearly career-ending (and life-threatening) injury that he breached the wall of his true ability: on March 28, 1950, Howe and the Red Wings found themselves matched up in a tight and physical game with the Toronto Maple Leafs. At one point Howe made a beeline for Toronto captain Ted Kennedy in hopes of cutting Teeder off from a charge into the Wings’ zone. Kennedy maneuvered out of the way of a body check, and Howe lost his footing and crashed head-first into the boards and fell prostrate on the ice, blood staining the area around his head.
Hockey fans from Detroit to Saskatchewan waited in fear for the fate of the young goliath (who, before being taken into surgery, groggily apologized to then-coach Jack Adams for not playing better that game), and after a long and sleepless night doctors had drained fluid from his brain and seemed optimistic that he would retain use of his eye. Howe suffered a fractured skull that night, and many wondered if he’d ever return.
Over the next 20 years Howe won four Stanley Cups, six scoring titles, and six MVPs. With all due respect to Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Jean Beliveau, and teammate Ted Lindsay, Howe established himself the greatest player of his era, and set a precedent that few players in the subsequent 44 years after his retirement as a Red Wing have come close to.
Almost as incredible was Howe’s drive to continue to play the game; he had been retired from professional hockey for two years when he was offered the chance to play in the WHA with his sons Marty and Mark (who would join his pop in the NHL Hall of Fame). Not only did Howe join the upstart league, he became its best player from age 45 through age 50, winning a pair of championships in Houston.
Then, against all odds, Howe returned to the NHL as a member of the newly-absorbed Hartford Whalers (formerly of the WHA), and played well enough to tally 15 goals and 26 assists as a 52-year old.
One of the most improbable moments of Howe’s professional career came much further after that incredible season in Hartford, when Howe signed on to the IHL’s Detroit Vipers and actually played a shift as a 60-year old. The game was broadcast in Detroit, so fathers and sons could all say that they saw the great Gordie Howe lace it up one last time.
His post-retirement days were a mix of wonderful days spent with his family, public appearances as an ambassador of the NHL, and time spent with his adored wife Colleen.
Colleen served not just as his best friend and spouse, but also as his manager, organizing the appearances and books and alumni games and everything in between. She was responsible for representing Gordie in contractual negotiations, and played a huge part in his return to professional hockey with the WHA.
In 2006, Colleen was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that caused dementia, and in 2009 she passed away. Without his soul mate to guide him, Howe’s public profile diminished, and his appearances dwindled. In early 2014 Howe took part in the NHL Winter Classic, donning a jersey and participating in the puck-dropping ceremony, and that was the last many of us have seen him.
The legacy of the man is as incredible as his records, with numerous arenas built and bearing his name, multiple appearances on television and film (from the Hallmark movie “Mr. Hockey” in 2013, to his image and stats being used in one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever made). Consider that Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, the other members of the NHL’s Holy Trinity, consider Howe the greatest of all time.
But more than anything, more than the goals, the fights, the tall tales and the simple facts, Gordie Howe was a man embraced by everyone who’s ever loved hockey, indelibly linked to the game and to the state that he called home for the bulk of his and his family’s life. He remains one of the top sports figures in the state of Michigan, and his imprint will be felt forever, from the Great One to anyone who has ever met him or been a beneficiary of his kindness, this author included.
He’ll always and forever be Mr. Hockey, the greatest player to ever have graced the ice.