Gordie Howe was once quoted as saying "Hockey is a man's game." In the game of hockey, Gordie is the man.
Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby claimed "He was not only the greatest hockey player I've ever seen, but also the greatest athlete."
The right winger was a giant in his time at 6'1" and 205 lbs. He had the build of a heavyweight boxing champion. And he knew how to fight.
Part of the legend of Gordie Howe is his unmatchable toughness. He had "windshield wiper elbows" and like to give "close shaves" to anyone who dared to challenge. Ask any hockey experts who they'd choose as the toughest NHLer ever, and most would put their money on Gordie Howe against anyone else.
Those who knew Gordie away from the rink would never believe his on ice instincts.
"Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe that is calculatingly and primitively savage," Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964. "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."
Gordie had a nasty habit of never forgetting and always getting even. One hockey legend serves as a fine example of this would have been an exchange with Maple Leaf defenseman Bob Baun. In 1957, Baun knocked Howe down with vicious intent. Howe had to be helped to the bench. 10 seasons later in 1967, Baun was playing for Oakland and was defending Howe on a one-on-one rush. Howe took a shot and the follow through of the stick caught Baun in the throat. Baun was down on the ice bleeding. Howe mercilessly stood over him and said "Now we're even."
While few in the game were tougher than "Mr. Hockey," even fewer were more talented. In his prime in the 1950s and 1960s he was routinely described by coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker and the most unstoppable puck carrier in the game. Aldo Guidolin, an opponent of Howe back in the early days, understatedly remarked "Gordie plays a funny kind of game; he doesn't let anyone else touch the puck!"
Gordie Howe not only outperformed everybody, but outlasted everybody. Gordie played from 1946 until 1980. In his last season he was a 51 year old grandfather playing with and against players the were old enough to be his son! Howe played 33 seasons in the pros. One with Omaha of the USHL, 26 in the NHL (25 with Detroit) and 6 with the WHA.
While Wayne Gretzky has since dwarfed all of his statistical achievements, Howe dominated the game over many different eras.
His credentials speak for him. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1960, and 1963. He led the NHL in scoring in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1957 and 1963. He finished in the top 5 of NHL scoring in 20 consecutive seasons. He was a 21 time All Star.
During the 1950s the standard argument was "Who's better? Howe or Maurice ("The Rocket") Richard. Upon The Rocket's retirement, Richard admitted Howe was the best. "Gordie could do everything" he said.
When it comes to who is the greatest player of all time, one of Howe's chief rivals is the Boston Bruins stand out Bobby Orr. Howe was already a NHL star when Bobby Orr was born in 1948, and was still in the big leagues when Orr retired in 1979. No skater can compare to Howe when it comes to the test of surviving time.
It's too bad the New York Rangers did not have a crystal ball. They were the first NHL team to discover him, and at age 15 invited him to their junior training camp in Winnipeg. A homesick Howe performed poorly and wanted to go back to the family farm in Saskatchewan. The unimpressed Rangers never thought twice about it, and let the quiet kid go without signing him to their organization.
The next year, a Red Wings scout discovered him and invited him to the team's training camp in Windsor, Ontario. A more mature Howe impressed, as the Red Wings acquired his playing rights. Two years later, at 18, Howe was playing in the NHL.
Howe did not set the league on fire right away. Howe spent more time establishing his physical reputation in that time, scoring a total of only 35 goals but dropping the gloves with any and all comers. The Red Wings were able to convince him that he would be better served to stay out of the penalty box, the ambidextrous shooter scored 35 goals in 1949-50, second in the NHL to Rocket Richard's 43.
A playoff game in March 1950 defines the essence of Gordie Howe. It happened in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Red Wings bitter rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs. The result almost ended his life, never mind his hockey career. Teeder Kennedy was carrying the puck when Gordie attempted to intercept him. A fraction of a second before impact, Kennedy pulled up, catapulting Gordie head first into the boards. He laid crumpled on the ice with a fractured skull. He was considered extremely lucky to survive such a blow and was told he'd never play hockey again. The next year he was the league's scoring leader by 20 points. It was the first of four consecutive Art Ross trophies as scoring champion.
His 1951-52 MVP season was even sweeter. After leading the NHL in scoring (86 points) and goals (47), he led Detroit to an 8-0 record in the playoffs in its sweep to the Stanley Cup.
In 1952-53, Howe became the first player to score at least 90 points, notching 95, with a career-high 49 goals. The Red Wings, who were upset by Boston in the first round of the playoffs that season, rebounded by winning the Cup in 1954 and 1955, giving them four championships in six years. The Wings enjoyed one of hockey's greatest dynasties, but it proved to be Howe's last Stanley Cup.
Howe would continue to dominate in this six-team, 70-game era. He became the NHL's career scoring leader in 1960 when he passed Richard's 946 points on Jan. 16, 1960. In 1962-63, Howe won his sixth MVP and scoring championship (86 points). On Nov. 10, 1963, he became the league's all-time leading goal scorer with 545, passing Richard again.
In 1968-69, in the second year of expansion, Howe achieved his first 100-point season. On the day before his 41st birthday, he scored four points in the season finale to give him 103.
Gordie retired from the Detroit Red Wings in 1971 to take a front office job. But after two years of inactivity, Gordie made one of the most astonishing come backs in pro sport history. At the age 45, he signed with the Houston Aeros of the WHA where he was teammates with his two sons Mark and Marty. The Howes lead their team to the WHA title twice under his leadership.
In 1977 he and his boys joined the WHA's New England Whalers. When the Whalers joined the NHL as the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, Gordie made his triumphant return to the NHL at the unthinkable age 51! He drew capacity crowds as the fans wanted to see the 50 year old grandfather play against the young stars like Bryan Trottier, Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky. In the Whalers first year they made playoffs. Then-Whalers president Howard Baldwin credited Howe, who scored 15 goals, with that feat. Howe wasn't exactly in his prime at that age, but he didn't look out of place on many nights either.
Over a period of 32 years (combining NHL and WHA totals) Gordie Howe scored 1071 goals 1518 assists and 2589 points. Only Wayne Gretzky's career totals are better. Howe was a gifted power forward, an accomplished defensive player, a feared giant and the only player to have dominated three different eras - postwar NHL, the Golden Era of the 1960s and the Expansion Era.