Born in a farmhouse in rural Floral, Saskatchewan, there was little about Gordie Howe’s early years that eluded to the fact that he would grow up to become, in the estimation of many, the greatest hockey player in the world. In fact, he was just another face among 9 children. Early on, though, Gordie Howe figured hockey might be an escape from the back-breaking construction work his father did to support the family during the Depression. The man who would later receive the nickname, Mr. Hockey, worked alongside his dad during the summer months. This was what led to his muscular physique in an era when yearround weight training had not yet become the norm among professional athletes. Even though he grew up in a hard scrabble existence, Gordie Howe always found time for hockey. After all, it was then and still continues to be, the Canadian national pastime! By age 16, the future Mr. Hockey was ready to leave Saskatoon and pursue a future in the sport. Before it was all said and done, Gordie Howe would play a total of 34 seasons of professional hockey and establish scoring records that would stand until an inhuman shooting machine by the name of Wayne Gretzky came along and claimed many of them.
Although Gordie Howe retired in 1980, he still holds NHL records for most games and seasons played. If you ask any true hockey fan who the greatest player of all time was, a few younger fans might say Wayne Gretzky. Yet, Gretzky himself idolized Detroit’s star player while growing up and would probably be the first to say that Gordie Howe was “the greatest all around player” that ever lived. There is little debate that Mr. Hockey was a more complete player and became the singular living legend by which an entire sport was defined. Gordie Howe’s toughness was also evident early in his rookie career and his coach, Jack Adams - vexed at his rookie’s willingness to get into a fight - allegedly said to him, “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?”
Until Gordie Howe began playing professionally, a hat trick was attributed to a player who scored three goals in a game. Impressive yes, but perhaps not as impressive as what became known as a ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’, which occurs when a player scores a goal, serves up an assist and gets in a fight, all in the same game! This should serve as a reminder of why Gordie was known as the greatest hockey player in the world. Mr. Hockey was equally adept at all three phases of the game: scoring a goal, passing to a teammate and punching an opponent. In a sport known for brawls, the pugnacious Gordie Howe was never shy about swinging away at someone on the opposing team.
Gordie Howe made his professional debut as a right winger for the Detroit Red Wings on October 16, 1946, at the age of 18, and scored a goal in his first game. Before calling it quits, Mr. Hockey would play a quarter of a century for the same team, win four Stanley Cup championships, and personally finish within the top five in scoring for 20 consecutive seasons! What makes Mr. Hockey’s scoring records even more impressive was the nature of the game during the 1940’s and 1950’s, when Gordie Howe was in his prime. This era in hockey was known as a defensive one, with tight checking and lower scoring games. Also, the ‘slap-shot’ was not generally or as widely used as it is today. Not to take anything away from “The Great One’s” accomplishments, but it’s hard to imagine the slighter built Wayne Gretzky putting up the same scoring numbers had he played during Gordie Howe’s time.
Howe solidified his reputation as the greatest hockey player of all time as he plowed through the decades putting up scoring numbers that were unheard of for the time. Back then, Mr. Hockey was an oddity - a big man who was also a perennial contender for the scoring title. He became the first NHL player to score 90 points then finished the 1952-53 season with 95, including a career-best - 49 goals. In 1968-69, at the ripe old age of 40, he broke the 100 point mark for the first and only time in his career, scoring 44 goals and assisting 59 others. But all was not right in “Red Wing land”.
Shortly after that 103 point season, the man who is known as Mr. Hockey discovered that he was only the third-highest paid player on Detroit’s team at $45,000. Not the third highest paid in the league, but receiving less than two other players on his own team! The greatest hockey player of all time, receiving only $45,000? Under pressure from Howe (and perhaps Gordie’s wife (if you believe media reports of the time), Red Wing owner, Bruce Norris, increased his pay to $100,000. Unfortunately, a chronic wrist injury only allowed Howe to play two more seasons. Gordie Howe retired after the 1970-71 season and took a job in the team’s front office.
Mr. Hockey won the NHL Most Valuable Player award six times, a number that has only been beaten by Wayne Gretzky, who has earned nine Hart Memorial Trophies. Gordie Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame only a year after retirement, but wasn’t able to hang up the skates completely. Two years later, in his mid-forties, Howe joined his sons on the Houston Aeros of an upstart competitor to the NHL, the World Hockey Association. The old man scored more than 100 goals twice in a six-year stint.
Call him what you will, Gordie Howe is a legend that redefined the role of a Hockey forward and was the inaugural recipient of the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Gordie Howe died on June 10, 2016, at the age of 88, but he’ll always be “Mr. Hockey”!