Considered by most hockey experts as the greatest all around player ever, Gordie Howe could do anything on the ice, not only because of exceptional skills, but in large part due to his toughness and ability to use his elbows, stick, and sometimes fists as weapons.
For an article I wrote in the Detroit Free Press on Howe’s 75th birthday, former Detroit Red Wings’ coach Scotty Bowman, who claimed that Howe was the greatest player he had ever seen, said: “The best part of Gordie’s game was his toughness. The space he created enabled him to be the player he was.”
In the 25th anniversary program marking his final year with the Red Wings, an unidentified opponent described Howe:
“He is everything you’d expect the ideal athlete to be. He is soft-spoken, self deprecating and thoughtful. He is also one of the most vicious, cruel and mean men I’ve ever met in a hockey game.”
Arguably the most famous hockey fight in NHL history took place on February 1, 1959, at the old Madison Square Garden in New York city.
Actually you can’t really call it a fight because Gordie Howe beat the living crap out of New York Rangers’ enforcer Lou Fontinato who had always been an irritant to #9.
With his left hand holding Fontinato’s jersey at the right shoulder, Howe pummeled the Ranger in the face with a sickening sound that could be heard in the stands. Fontinato – who suffered a broken nose and dislocated jaw – was sent to the hospital. A photo of his bandaged face appeared in Life magazine above an article entitled, “Don’t Mess With Gordie.”
It would be Howe’s last major bout because after that no one ever seriously challenged him.
However, one month later, on March 3, 1959, Howe displayed a much softer side on the ice when he was leveled with kindness while receiving what turned out to be the greatest gift ever given to him.
The occasion was “Gordie Howe Night” at Olympia Stadium as the Red Wings recognized the team’s greatest player between the first and second periods in a game against the Boston Bruins.
Just 28 days shy of his 31st birthday, Howe was playing in his twelfth season and was already a four-time Stanley Cup Champion, a five-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader, and a three-time recipient of the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. At the end of the season he received his fourth Hart Trophy. (No one could have imagined that Howe would go on to play in 20 more seasons of professional hockey, the last taking place in 1980 at the age of 52.)
The Red Wings showered him with numerous gifts estimated at $10,000 that included a Miami vacation, clothing, luggage, a barbecue grill, a television, and a new white station wagon bearing Michigan license plate GH-9000.
The car was driven onto the ice wrapped in cellophane. As the wrapping was being removed Howe reached to open the driver’s door and suddenly doubled over in shock and tears because his parents Ab and Katherine Howe, who still lived in Gordie’s hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, were sitting in the car.
It was the first time Ab had been to Detroit and the first time he had seen his son in person play an NHL game. (Katherine also had never seen him play for the Red Wings but she had been to Detroit in 1950 at Howe’s hospital bed after he suffered a near fatal head injury during the playoffs.)
As his parents stepped out of the car, Howe broke down completely as his mother hugged him in front of the cheering crowd who called for a speech.
“Don’t mind the odd tear,” he said after a long pause. “It’s a long way from Saskatoon. I want to thank you for the biggest thrill of my life.”
Years later Howe told a reporter:
“Maybe I was a little slow at thinking, but when I got to the rink, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if Mom and Dad were here.’ And they were there — they were in the car when it rolled out on the ice. And you’re supposed to be a tough guy, and it broke me up, it just broke me up.”
Yeah, even tough guys cry sometimes.