Gordie Howe: The Final Buzzer Sounds For Mr. Hockey

Gordie Howe was 88 years old when he died earlier this week. By most standards, that could be seen as a good long run, but by professional hockey standards, any more is darned near miraculous. His entire career could be seen that way. Howe had reached a point where his stats bumped his life story to the stuff of a mythic hero’s journey. His persona as one of the avuncular old men of the game put him in the same category as one of the few of his generation and the previous waves of hockey legends to see his level of greatness and survive into the new millennia in time to see the game change.

Mitch Albom summed it up best in his column about Howe for USA Today.

“Who really follows Gordie Howe? Nobody can. Nobody will give us stories like that, or memories like those, not 25 years with a single team, not five decades of hockey, not a standing ovation at Joe Louis Arena as a white-haired, 51-year-old All-Star.”

At a time when NHL players are considered near retirement age once they pass the 30-year mark, it’s hard to imagine 50-year-old Gordie Howe playing with and against his grown sons. The NHL of Howe’s generation was rougher around the edges. The scrape of the skates on ice and the sharp report of frozen rubber against a wooden blade wasn’t dulled by crowds anesthetized by the continual bombardment of multimedia babble that makes hockey almost beside the point. When Howe made his NHL debut in 1946, it was to a league of gentlemen who appealed to blue collar sports fans who appreciated the balletic grace of giants on ice coupled with the pugilistic sweet science of the inevitable hockey fight.

Howe Was An Iconoclast

The NHL of Howe’s generation played hockey for a living during the season. In the offseason, a privileged few devoted their time to training or travel. Most worked at other jobs until training camp painting houses, logging, or selling insurance. These tough guys whose education was often truncated by the need to work developed their business savvy on the run. Their intelligence and acumen was sharpened by experience long before there was an NHLPA to advocate for pay, post-season vocational development, and further education after that last skate by the dasher boards.

Howe was an advocate for fair treatment of players. He and his wife, Colleen, were fiercely protective of his name and image during and after his career. The work Howe started in advocacy for players to have greater agency at the business end of professional hockey is continued by the NHLPA to this day.

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Writers of my generation saw the latter-day Howe playing well into his 50s. We saw a slower, older version of the man who logged some of the earliest triple-digit scoring seasons. We saw the fire, but we missed, at least until the advent of the internet, where Orr and Hull and Howe play forever on highlight videos on YouTube, the years when his passion caught fire in the likes of a young Wayne Gretzky.

It was Howe’s power on the ice and charisma off of it that inspired the creation of conventions like the Gordie Howe Hat Trick, a goal, an assist, and a fight in a single game.

Earlier this week, ESPN published Larry Schwartz’s reflections on Howe’s career. Even more than the fireworks on the ice was the simple fact that not only was Howe so good and so thoroughly devoted to a game he played so well, but that he also played at the level as long as he did.

“Durability, thy name is Gordie Howe. In his tenure as a professional hockey player, he skated right wing through the presidencies of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.”

Howe ushered in a generation of hockey players who understood that not only were they the lucky few who could play and get paid for it, but they were nine feet tall in the eyes of their fans as well. Wayne Gretzky was one such young fan who met Howe on both sides of the glass. As a child, Gretzky idolized Howe. Gretzky shared his memories in a heartfelt tribute he penned for Time.

“I wrote letters to NHL players. Gordie, my hockey idol, sent me back a signed picture that I still have today. When I was ten or so, he visited my town, and I was lucky enough to meet him…. I cherish that moment so much. Every time I look at the picture I always have the same thoughts. He couldn’t have been nicer, better or bigger when I met him than I thought he was going to be.”

Later, Gretzky would be one of Gordie Howe’s teammates on the WHA All-Star Team.

“The biggest lesson I learned from him was that every game is important. He knew that every night someone was paying good money to see Gordie Howe play. He knew it might be that person’s only opportunity to see Gordie Howe in person. So you had to rise to the occasion. Leave nothing on the ice. I always took that to heart.”

The Greatest talking about the Greatest.

It’s been a tough week for sports in a brutal year for legends of all kinds. Gordie Howe was part of a bygone era. He personified hockey in general. He was one of the faces of Detroit in its heyday as the heart of American strength as an industrial power. He was a hero to people who would go on to be heroes on the ice. He was Mr. Hockey. Godspeed, Gordie Howe.

[Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images]

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