Gordie Howe, a Hall of Fame ice hockey virtuoso whose toughness, agility and remarkable longevity helped define the sport for generations of fans, died June 10 at a son’s home in Sylvania, Ohio. He was 88.
A daughter-in-law, Mary Howe, confirmed his death and said she did not yet know the cause. He had suffered a severe stroke in 2014.
In an epic career spanning 32 seasons at hockey’s highest levels, Howe was the National Hockey League’s leading scorer six times and a six-time winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. He led the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cup championships, and in 2008 he received the NHL’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.
He helped hockey grow from a sport dominated by Canadian players with six major-league teams in the 1960s to an international game with 30 NHL teams throughout Canada and the United States. Howe became so widely known as “Mr. Hockey” that he registered the title as a personal trademark.
Until the rise of younger superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Howe held many of the scoring records in the NHL. But the mark that will seemingly never be taken from him is the one for longevity.
Howe played in five separate decades in an often-brutal sport, enduring brain surgery, concussions, dozens of broken bones and more than 500 stitches in his face. He played his entire career without a helmet, finally retiring when he was a silver-haired 52-year-old.
From 1946 through 1971, Howe starred for one team, the Red Wings. After a brief retirement, he returned to action in 1973 to play alongside two of his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros of the rival World Hockey Association.
He played four seasons with the Aeros, two with the WHA’s New England Whalers and one with the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, hanging up his skates again in 1980. No one else in any professional team sport has played regularly at such an advanced age.
In football, George Blanda played 26 seasons, while basketball’s Robert Parish played 21 in the NBA. Even baseball’s “Iron Man,” Cal Ripken, played 11 fewer seasons than Howe.
The astonishing length of Howe’s career is particularly notable in a sport as violent and injury-riddled as hockey.
“I played against Gordie when he was in his 50s in Houston,” ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose wrote in 2011. “The first thing that struck me when I saw Gordie on the ice was how big he was. He was still nasty and shifty. I can’t imagine what he was like in his 20s.”
Howe, who was 6 feet tall and weighed 205 pounds, was a large player for his era. Other players cut him a wide berth on the ice, and he seldom lost a fight. While he didn’t necessarily enter a game looking for trouble, he wasn’t reluctant to drop the gloves.
In his first season with Detroit, the 18-year-old Howe became an instant sensation. When one of the NHL’s biggest stars, Montreal’s Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, challenged the rookie with a shove, Howe knocked him down with one punch.
“Off the ice, my dad was mostly a gentle person,” his son Mark once told the Los Angeles Times. “On it, he was mostly nasty.”
Indeed, Howe tallied 1,685 penalty minutes in the NHL to go along with his 801 goals and 1,049 assists, for 1,850 points.
“He was big, he was mean, he would fight,” Melrose wrote in a 2011 column for NHL.com. “Obviously he was one of the greatest goal scorers we’ve got in our sport and he was a great passer.”
Gordon Howe was born March 31, 1928, in Floral, Saskatchewan, the fifth of nine children. His father, a wheat farmer, soon moved the family to nearby Saskatoon and started a garage.
The family struggled to make ends meet during the Depression. One day a woman knocked at the Howes’ back door. She needed money, and Howe’s mother gave her what little the family had out of a cookie jar.
A short time later, the woman returned with a gunnysack as a token of her appreciation. When Howe’s mother emptied it, a pair of hockey skates fell to the floor.
At first, Howe and his older sister Edna tried to share the skates. But “when Edna got cold and went in and took the skates off, I grabbed them,” Howe recalled in “Legends of Hockey: The Official Guide of the Hockey Hall of Fame.” “Now I could actually skate. She never saw those skates again.”
“From that moment on, I loved skating,” he said decades later. “I think the two dollars my mom gave that woman was the down payment on my career.”
Howe and his new skates became inseparable. During the winter, he skated on the family’s backyard rink before and after school. At night, the ruts in the dirt roads around Saskatoon would fill with water and freeze, so Howe and his friends could skate all around town. When he came home to eat, Howe often kept his skates on, and his mother indulged him by putting newspaper on the kitchen linoleum floor.
He was 16 when he signed his first professional contract with the Detroit Red Wings. After some seasoning in the minors, he joined the Red Wings in 1946, scoring seven goals in his rookie season.
Soon Howe, playing right wing, found a home on Detroit’s Production Line, alongside center Sid Abel and left winger Ted Lindsay. The trio blossomed into one of the top scoring units in the game, and Howe competed with Richard for NHL scoring honors.
His promising career was nearly derailed in the 1950 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Howe went flying headlong into the boards and suffered a fractured skull and lacerated eye.
Doctors had to drill into his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. Despite being left with a facial tic, he had fully recovered by the next season, when he led the league with 86 points (goals plus assists) to win the Art Ross Trophy. In all, Howe would lead the NHL in goals five times and in total points six times.
In 1963, he scored his 545th goal, passing Richard for first place on the all-time scoring list. The Canadiens’ forward was remembered for his breakaways on the opposing goalie. By comparison, Howe did his best work in traffic. He was invariably the player who got the puck, thanks to a well-timed shoulder check or a well-placed elbow.
“I’m not dirty,” Howe once said. “I’d rather say aggressive.”
Even Jean Beliveau, Richard’s teammate in Montreal, called Howe “the best hockey player I have ever seen.”
In the 1960s, Howe began a new rivalry with Bobby Hull, the “Golden Jet” of the Chicago Blackhawks. Along with Bobby Orr, a fast-skating defenseman with the Boston Bruins, they helped increase hockey’s popularity in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s as the NHL spread across North America.
“Gordie, when you entered the league, hockey was a Canadian sport,” former league president Clarence Campbell once told Howe. “As you exit, you have made it a North American sport.”
Howe finished in the top five in NHL scoring for 20 consecutive seasons. Counting his years in the WHA, he scored 975 goals – the most of any professional hockey player in history. He appeared in 21 NHL all-star games.
He excelled in an era when scoring was low and teams played 70 games a season, versus 82 today. There were no regular-season overtime periods, when additional goals are scored.
After retiring from the NHL in 1971, Howe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame one year later. His playing days appeared to be over, but Mr. Hockey still had plenty of game left.
He risked his reputation by returning to the ice to play alongside his sons for the Houston Aeros. He was 45 at the time – an old man by the standards of any professional sport.
“If I failed badly, people would remember me more for trying a stupid comeback,” he told an interviewer, “than for all the other things I did in hockey.”
Yet the gamble paid off as Howe became an all-star in the upstart WHA and had the satisfaction of mentoring his sons. He won the league’s most valuable player award at age 46, while his son Mark was named rookie of the year the same season.
Hockey was a family business in the Howe household. In 1953, Howe married Colleen Joffa, who was his agent for many years. In 2000, she was honored by the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame along with her husband and their sons Marty and Mark. She died in 2009 at age 76.
In addition to Marty, of Glastonbury, Connecticut, and Mark, a 2011 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, of Jackson Township, New Jersey, Howe’s survivors include another son, Dr. Murray Howe of Sylvania, and a daughter, Cathy Howe of Lubbock, Texas; two sisters; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Howe became widely admired by a younger generation of hockey stars, including Gretzky, who scored 894 goals to break Howe’s previous NHL record of 801. In the two leagues, Howe played in a record 2,186 games before retiring in 1980 at age 52.
“He was big, he was mean, he would fight, obviously he was one of the greatest goal scorers we’ve got in our sport and he was a great passer,” Melrose wrote in a 2011 column for NHL.com.
During Howe’s first season with the Houston Aeros in the 1970s, while driving to a hotel parking lot, he saw a man snatch a woman’s purse.
Howe ran after him for several blocks until the thief dropped the purse. When Howe returned the bag to its owner, the woman’s friend asked what they could do to repay him.
“Well, I’m a player with the Houston Aeros,” Howe said. “How about attending some of our games?”