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Gordie Howe (1928 - 2016)

Getty Images / NHL / Denis Brodeur / Contributor

Gordie Howe (1928 - 2016)

Gordie Howe, the Detroit Red Wings icon known as "Mr. Hockey," died Friday, according to a statement from the team. He was 88.


A statement from the Howe family says that Howe, one of the sport’s most respected and beloved players, had "a significant stroke" about a year and a half ago while staying at his daughter’s home in Lubbock, Texas. He was living in Toledo, Ohio, at the time of his death.

Playing with the Red Wings from 1946 to 1971, the bulk of his professional career, Howe is widely considered one of the very best hockey players of all time. He helped lead the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups, led the National Hockey League in scoring for six years, and ranked in the top 10 scoring players for 21 consecutive years. His impressive career longevity made him the only NHL player in history to play in five different decades, the 1940s through the 1980s.

Born Mar. 31, 1928 in Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and played hockey from a young age. As a Great Depression-era teen, Howe quit school to work construction with his father, but by 15, he was already beginning to make his way toward his professional hockey career. The New York Rangers had noticed his amateur prowess, and they invited Howe to their training camp.


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Howe attended, but he chose not to sign with the team, returning instead for Saskatoon for a short period before signing with the Detroit Red Wings. It was a choice that would inform his legendary career, as he would remain with the organization for decades. He started out on their junior team, the Galt Red Wings, was quickly moved up to the minor league Omaha Knights, and so obviously excelled that he was promoted to the major leagues when he was just 18.

Howe's first game for the Red Wings on Oct. 16, 1946 was an auspicious beginning for the young rookie: He scored his first goal in that first game. It was the first of more than 800 goals he'd score over the course of 25 seasons with the Red Wings and a successful post-"retirement" career. 

Two seasons later, Howe would lead the Red Wings to his first Stanley Cup appearance, though the team lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following season, the Red Wings would go all the way, winning the Stanley Cup in a playoffs victory against the very same team. But Howe would not be on the ice for the winning game – as the team played the first game of the playoffs, a devastating accident nearly put an end to Howe's career. Some feared it would end his life.

Howe body-checked Ted Kennedy of the Maple Leafs as his opponent headed for the Red Wings' goal. But the hit went wrong and Howe flipped head first into the boards, landing unconscious on the ice as blood covered his face. Fans and teammates feared the worst as he was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull. Howe's mother was called to be by his side in case he didn't make it through emergency surgery to release the pressure on his brain.  

Howe made it through surgery. He woke up to be told he would probably never play again. By the last game of the playoffs, Howe had progressed well enough to carefully walk out onto the ice to congratulate his team on their overtime win. By the following season, he was back on the ice as a player, and he'd go on to lead the league in scoring that season – by 20 points.

Howe's legendary toughness may have been what brought him through that catastrophe. It also gave him a reputation as an on-ice fighter – one that was earned in his earliest days in the NHL, when he dropped his gloves so often that his coaches had to urge him to concentrate on his playing.

Howe took the advice, but he didn't go soft. His fighting spirit remained, and it led to the tongue-in-cheek naming of a hockey tradition after him. The "Gordie Howe hat trick" occurs when a player scores a goal, records an assist, and participates in a fight, all in a single game. Howe himself only completed his namesake hat trick twice over the course of his long career, both times in his earlier seasons, and many other players have achieved it more times. But it remains named for Mr. Hockey, a tribute to his skill and spirit.

With Howe, the Red Wings would win Stanley Cup championships again in 1952, 1954, and 1955. He was a league leader in scoring for most of his long career with the Red Wings, with a personal best of 103 points in the 1968-'69 season. He retired in 1971, citing a chronic wrist problem and taking a job in the Red Wings' front office, but it was hard to stay away from the ice.

In 1973, Howe was offered a contract with the Houston Aeros in the newly-formed World Hockey Association. Ready to get back in the game, he had an operation on his wrist and joined the team, leading them to several successful seasons before signing with the Hartford Whalers. On Howe's Aeros team were two of his sons, Marty and Mark, who both went on to long professional careers.

When the WHA later folded, the Hartford Whalers moved to the NHL and became the New England Whalers, bringing Howe with them. He would remain with the Whalers through 1980, receiving a seemingly never-ending standing ovation in his final game.

Howe's career points total is fourth in NHL history: 1850 total points, including 801 goals and 1049 assists. He holds the league record for games played, with 2421. He was selected to 23 NHL All-Star Games, another league record. He was the first player to score more than 1000 goals, and he was the first to reach 1500 NHL games.

Howe very briefly came out of retirement in 1997, signing a one-game contract with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League. At 69 years old, he played one shift of one game, adding another milestone to his storied career – he had played professionally during six decades.

The following year, The Hockey News ranked Howe third on their "List of Top 100 NHL Players of All Time," behind Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. However, both Gretzky and Orr were known to disagree with that assessment, calling Howe the best. In a 2015 interview with ESPN, Gretzky said of Howe, "He is, he was, he will always be the greatest of all time." Orr told the Globe and Mail in 2014, "My God! He played 30-plus years of professional hockey. It’s crazy. The guy was incredible."

"I pick Gordie as my No. 1 all-time player," Scotty Bowman, senior adviser of operations for the Stanley Cup championship-winning Chicago Blackhawks, said on Howe’s website, gordiehowe.com. "He played the longest. He was the toughest player of his era. He was the best offensive player and defensively he was used in all situations. He could play center, right wing, and defense. He could shoot right, and he could shoot left. If you could make a mold for a hockey player, it would be him. I never thought there was another player close to him."

Howe was honored in 2007 with a statue erected in the Red Wings' Joe Louis Arena. Another statue stands in Saskatoon. In 1972, just after his initial retirement, Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and in 2000, he was added to Canada's Walk of Fame. A bridge over the Detroit River connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, will be named the Gordie Howe International Bridge, set for completion in 2020.

Howe's late wife, Colleen Howe, was part of his life for almost his entire professional career and beyond. She was a major figure in the hockey world as well. The pair met in 1949 and married in 1953. They would go on to have four children together, Marty, Mark, Murray, and Cathy, all of whom survive their parents. Colleen became a sports agent and managed her husband's career, and she founded the Detroit Junior Red Wings, the first Junior A hockey team in the U.S. She became known as Mrs. Hockey to her husband's Mr. Hockey, and they remained married until her death of Pick's Disease in 2009. 

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