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The Toughest. One of the Greatest. The Lasting Legacy of ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe

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Gordie Howe died today at the age of 88. The sport has and does mourn for Mr. Hockey, who has a legacy of being one of the toughest players to play against, arguably being the toughest player ever, and one of the greatest of all time.

2008 NHL Awards - Portraits
Gordie Howe. Also known as, Mr. Hockey, a fully earned nickname.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Yesterday came the awful news that Gordie Howe passed away at the age of 88. The word "legend” does not begin to describe him in the world of hockey. Howe’s nickname was “Mr. Hockey,” and he easily met the requirements that would come with such a moniker. Howe wasn’t just the best Detroit Red Wing of all time. Howe wasn’t just the best player in the world in his era. Howe wasn't just one of the few that can be credibly argued to be the greatest player of all time. Howe was Mr. Hockey. To many, be it in Canada or a fan of the game all over the world, Howe represented the entire game as one of the greatest at it all for a skater.

I will admit that, like Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy, I didn’t get to see Howe play. I was born in 1983; I missed out on him. To use Wyshynski’s term from his post today on Howe - which you should read - this is a “book report.” But all hockey fans should recognize and appreciate what Howe has done if only for how exceptional he was as a player.

Hockey is an inherently tough game. You need to be tough on some level to play it. Usually, when I or another fans refer to someone as being tough in hockey, it’s relative to other hockey players and it’s synonymous with physical play. Someone who hits hard is tough. Someone who takes hard hits and keeps going is tough. Someone who plays through the pain is tough. Someone who throws down and throws hands is tough. Howe was on another level of toughness.

Keep in mind that Howe played in an era where even the top scorers were absolutely nasty. Here’s a fun anecdote by Stan Mikita - a legendary Chicago player himself - that @NHLhistoryGirl (Aside: You should follow her, she has lots of, well, history of the game. It’s all good stuff.) dug up on Twitter:

It was a different era where players absolutely did take matters into their own hands. Howe took matters into his hands, his elbows, his shoulder, his stick, and whatever else to cause you, the opposing player, pain. He didn’t forget about when someone did him wrong. The above anecdote is a good example. Here's another popular one, something Jonathan Willis tweeted from Dick Beddoes’ 1990 book, Dick Beddoes’ greatest hockey stories:

Howe clearly had a long memory and had no qualms about . Interestingly, Howe did not fight much. He only had 22 in the NHL and two of the “Gordie Howe hat trick” of a goal, an assist, and a fight. At Greatest Hockey Legends, Joe Pelletier reviewed those 22 fights and concluded he wasn’t fantastic at it. But that’s not where Howe did his damage. He would do it in-game. He would do it in the corners, along the boards, and as hard as he can. Who wants to throw down with someone who’s essentially going to beat you up like a fight during the game? That was how Howe fought; he didn’t need a fighting major to prove it. His tough-guy reputation was built through that, not so much in throwing haymakers (although infamously crushing Lou Fontinato’s face helped). Was Howe nasty? Yep. Dirty? Sure. Did it give him an edge? Absolutely.

Howe got as good as he gave though. This 1964 Sports Illustrated article by Mark Kram (hat-tip: Josh Cooper at Puck Daddy) profiles Howe and features this paragraph:

The full roster of Howe's hockey injuries includes damaged knee cartilages, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a shoulder dislocation, an assortment of scalp wounds and a painful ankle wound. In a collision on the ice on March 28, 1950 (he was 21), he suffered a severe skull fracture, and he was in an operating room three hours while surgeons worked to halt a hemorrhage in his brain. Gordie dismisses them all with a casual, "Aw, it's not all that bad." And perhaps it isn't, for injuries are a part of hockey. And hockey is the major part of the phenomenon called Gordie Howe.

A laundry list of injuries like that would be more than enough to cause a player to understandably change his ways or even leave the game. Not Howe. After this article was published and the 1963-64 season ended, Howe would go onto play another seven years in the NHL, retire for two years, come back to hockey with the Houston Aeros of the Western Hockey Association to play with his sons Mark and Marty, play in the WHA for another six years, and then play one more season in the NHL with Hartford in 1979-1980. He played another sixteen years after that article was written. And not only for a part of the season. Oh no, he played in the majority of his team's games with a significant amount of ice time. Howe endured so much pain in addition to doling it out and managed to still play 1,767 regular season games in the NHL (the first NHL player to reach 1,000 games too), 417 in the WHA, 157 NHL playoff games, 78 WHA playoff games, and long enough to personally see his sons become veteran players.

Not to mention that one needs to consider the context of the times he played in. Again, Mikita, Howe, Maurice Richard, and so forth all were strong, tough men who battled against men almost as well as they did in the game. The NHLPA didn't come along right away for Howe. There wasn't a NHL draft until later in Howe’s career. Helmets weren't a requirement, nevermind visors. Padding wasn’t the same as they are now. Trainers and training methods weren’t the same as they are now. Tryouts were common and so there were players fighting for their spots on the roster every night. Howe quickly became a star but he still had to reaffirm that he was the guy. And when the success comes with the process - as it did for Howe - then the process continues.

With all of this put together in my mind, Howe is the toughest player to have played the game. The strikes, the reputation, the times and the longevity in spite of the pain from playing the game and how it was back then.

Of course, Mr. Hockey also got his moniker by being absolutely magisterial at playing the game. Look at his stats and accolades at Hockey-Reference.com. He was the statistical leader for quite some time. Howe’s 801 goals and 1,850 points were marks Gretzky surpassed for #99 to stake his claim to being the G.O.A.T., after all. He was a dynamite scorer with Detroit, having led the NHL in scoring six times. He was massively valuable to the Red Wings, so much so that he earned five Hart trophies as the league’s MVP on top of being named to the NHL’s all star first team twelve times and the second team nine times. Yes, Howe made the league’s all star team twenty-one times out of twenty-six seasons in the NHL. His all times games played amount is still first in the NHL at 1,767 and it’s even more impressive considering he also played another six seasons in the WHA after two years off and an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. Speaking of the WHA, he made the first team all-stars twice out of six seasons and won the MVP trophy in the 1973-74 season, which is named the Gordie Howe Trophy. Yes, Gordie Howe was so good in his 40s (specifically when he was 45), he won a trophy named after himself. It’s like a Chuck Norris fact except it’s an actual fact.

The milestones speak for themselves but what makes me gasp at his amazing career was the context of his numbers. Helpfully, Hockey-Reference has that available. While he never scored fifty goals, he led the NHL in goal scoring five times - each in the same year he won the Art Ross for the most points in the league. He also led the NHL in assists three seasons, two of which were in the same season he led the league in goals. From his 20-year old season in 1948-49 to his 42-year old season in 1970-71, Howe put up fewer than seventy points in just five of those seasons. In his whole professional career, Howe had a point per game average of at least one in twenty-two of his thirty-two seasons. Howe was a top-ten goal scorer in nineteen of his twenty-six seasons in the NHL. Howe finished in the top-ten in assists in twenty-two of his twenty-six seasons in the NHL and four out of his six in the WHA. Howe finished in the top-ten in points in twenty-one seasons in the NHL and four out of his six in the WHA. Howe was just a scoring machine for the better part of two decades and over a half of a third decade. I’m not done yet, here’s two more stat-based (oh, how I wish we had the stats that came out in the late 1960s for Howe’s career) facts about Howe's career that just shows how exceptional he was as a scorer. Howe's most productive NHL season came in 1968-69 when he was 41 by the end of it (40 per H-R’s standards) with 44 goals and 53 assists. To this day, Howe’s 103 points remain a cut above any of the 103 NHL seasons played by someone who was 40 or older. Lastly, in Howe’s final pro season of hockey in 1979-1980, Howe finished the season with 80 games (of course he played a full season), fifteen goals, and 26 assists. Even though he was clearly not what he once was, Howe finished tied for 144th in scoring out of 585 skaters in that season. Even though he was 52 and had careers worth of injuries, pain, and fatigue, he managed to still be above the league median in points. Yes, Jaromir Jagr’s impressive now and Chris Chelios has been the one man to come close to touching Howe’s longetivity in the game. But Howe was truly on another level. He didn’t just show up, he was a point machine. And he wrecked a lot of dudes along the way.

Imagine being a coach or a defensive player. I’m certain playing against Howe was a painful experience on multiple levels. It wasn’t enough for Howe for to physically hurt the opposing player. No, he had to hurt their team by just lighting them up. There’s the physical pain that comes from the elbows, the stick-play, the little shots in the corner, and the checks. There’s the mental pain for players and coaches knowing that he's going to do all that and he’ll still keep the puck and make your team suffer on the scoresheet. Try to bully him? That's going to end very poorly for you - assuming. You want to try to cover him tightly? He’ll burn you with passes if not his own speed. Keep him away from the net? He’ll still find a way to make or finish the play himself. Howe is more than just arguably the toughest player to have ever played the game. He was arguably the toughest player to play against in the game too. And he did it until he was 52!

If that wasn't enough, Howe was remarkable off the ice. He was famously humble and modest in his appearances and in interviews. Going back to Kern's feature on him in 1964, I didn’t see a lot of quotes from him that came across as bragging or boisterous or flashy. He was a guy who treated hockey as a job that he did very well. It was perhaps to a fault as Bruce Norris of the Red Wings underpaid him for years, but that's how he was. On the ice, he was a devil to play against. Off the ice, based on what I see from the eulogies, memories, and stories, he was angel-like. But the grudges on the ice stayed on the ice. Howe was a quintessential example of an ideal player in this regard as well, a part of a hockey culture that exists to this day.

For many, including Wayne Gretzky, he's the greatest player ever. He was an idol. He was a national hero. More than that: Howe was hockey. Howe was a perfect mix of skill, effort, speed, endurance, teamwork, bravery, heart, relentlessness, violence, and toughness. Whether you like the sport more for the action or the battles between players, Howe represented and excelled at both. Whether you think he was the greatest of all time or not, misses the point. He was truly a once in a lifetime player. The sort of player fans should do “book reports” on and learn as much as they can about what he did from the anecdotes about what he did to some poor soul on the ice to just dominating the NHL and WHA throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. To this end, Howe fully earned and deserved the “Mr. Hockey” nickname.

It is from all of this along with the accolades; the success with Detroit, Houston, and Hartford; the attention; the production; and the sheer magnitude of how much he did and how long he did it for that Howe’s legacy should and will last in the game for generations to come. May he rest in peace, in power, and in perpetual appreciation by those who did, do, and will play the game.

Most of all, thank you, Mr. Hockey.