Twenty-five years ago, as a young hockey writer, I was covering a Red Wings game in the tiny press box at Joe Louis Arena.
I don’t remember who Detroit was playing or what might have happened in the game, but there was one moment I’ll never forget.
My press-box seat was next to Cynthia Lambert of the Detroit News, and during the game, I heard a voice behind me.
“Cynthia, you have not introduced me to your new colleague.”
I distractedly turned around, expecting another media member or someone who worked for the team…
It was Gordie Howe.
“Hi, I’m Gordie,” he said and reached out to shake my hand.
Two things immediately registered – first, why did the heroes of my youth keep doing this? At my first Tigers game as a writer, it had been “Hi, I’m Ernie” from Ernie Harwell, and now Gordie. Both times, I just wanted to yell “Yes, I know that! I’ve known that my whole life! How is this happening?”
The second thing was that, even though Gordie was in his mid-60s, shaking his hand was like grabbing a handful of steel rods. He made no attempt to squeeze, but I knew that he could have turned my hand into dust without a second thought.
He chatted with Cindy and I for a few minutes and then wandered off to his much better seats and resumed watching the game. He probably forgot about that encounter within a week. I’m fairly certain I never will. I know that when I learned the news that he had passed away Friday at the age of 88, the memory sprang immediately to mind.
Not every hockey fan has a personal story like that, and even with his extended career – he played from 1946 to 1980 – most people watching the Sharks and Penguins last night will have never seen him play in person.
But you can’t be a fan of the sport for long without hearing the stories. This gentle farm boy who was the NHL’s first, and still best, power forward. He wasn’t huge by current standards – just 6’0” and 205 pounds – but in the first years after World War II, that was a big hockey player. Add in the enormous strength developed from the farm and years working construction with his father, and you had something the league had never seen before.
He was only 18 when he made his Red Wings debut, scoring while wearing the No. 17 jersey that he did not make famous. After his rookie year, when Roy Conacher left the team, Howe took Conacher’s No. 9 jersey so that he would get a lower berth in sleeping cars on the trains that defined life on the NHL road in the 1940s.
There is only one number in Detroit that comes close to the reverence of a No. 9 Red Wings jersey, and that’s No. 20 for the Lions. Between Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders – two Hall of Famers and a third superstar whose career was wrecked by injuries – they just about matched what Howe did for the Red Wings.
He wasn’t a flashy player like his predecessor as the NHL’s scoring king, Rocket Richard. Richard was a mercurial fireball who played the game through a haze of rage. Howe was the prototype of a tough hockey player. He had brilliant rink awareness, he was a great passer and he was a brilliant scorer. Being ambidextrous, he could switch hands on his stick and, with a goalie expecting a weak backhand, Howe would rip a forehand into the roof of the net.
Today’s coaches talk about “net-front presence” as a position on the ice, especially during the power play, but Howe remains unmatched in the role. He was too strong to move, too tough to intimidate and much too talented to ignore. He screened the goalie, and if he didn’t tip in the original shot, he was going to jump on the rebound.
That’s how he scored 801 career goals – plus another 174 in the WHA and 96 in the playoffs – and he also passed the puck, putting up over 1,500 assists.
Of course, there was one major part of his game. The “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” – a goal, an assist and a fight – has long taken its place in the pantheon of hockey statistics. Howe, though, didn’t have many of them, because there weren’t many NHL players crazy enough to fight him.
Lou Fontinato of the Rangers tried for years to get under Howe’s skin and finally, in 1959, managed to get him to drop his gloves. Fontinato was the first NHL player to accumulate 200 penalty minutes in a season, and was generally considered the league’s baddest man.
That reputation was gone in seconds. Fontinato missed his first punch, and Howe destroyed him. The fight got a three-page spread in Life Magazine, and the shots of the aftermath are astonishing. Howe doesn’t have a mark, while Fontinato’s jaw is dislocated and his nose has undertaken a painful migration in the direction of his right ear.
Few players wanted any part of Howe’s fists after that, and he rarely pushed the issue. Another group of enforcers did learn to fear him, though. In the 1970s, when he was playing alongside sons Mark and Marty with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, one of the league’s goons would take a cheap shot at one of the kids.
By the end of his next shift, Howe would have gone into a corner with the miscreant, and he would have been the only one to come out. A player whose entire career was dedicated to toughness would be crumpled on the ice, wondering how a man in his late 40s could do that.
Howe finally retired after the 1979-80 season, scoring 15 goals in his final season at the age of 51. That year, he returned to Detroit to play in the All Star Game, 32 years after he played in his first.
In 1948, he played alongside Rocket Richard, Elmer Lach and Milt Schmidt. In 1980, he was teamed up with a kid named Wayne Gretzky.
After his playing days, Howe settled nicely into the role of “Mister Hockey.” He was a kind, funny man who served as an ambassador for the sport. His career had a million stories, and he was always happy to tell them in a way that brought joy and laughter to his audience.
Two years ago, the city of Detroit was crushed by the news that Howe had suffered a major stroke and was on the brink of death. He rallied after controversial stem-cell therapy in Mexico, and was able to appear at a game honoring him last season.
Now, though, he’s gone – sending Motown into mourning on the same day that Louisville lays Muhammad Ali to rest.
The Ilitch family has already announced that the new hockey arena rising on Woodward Avenue will be named Little Caesar’s Arena. Hopefully, by the time it opens in 2017, it will include the Gordie Howe Rink.