Any discussion of Gordie Howe’s greatest moments is bound to be a long one – too long to list here, anyway. The one moment that stands out in the memories of many Detroiters occurred on February 7, 1980, when the NHL All-Star Game was held at Joe Louis Arena, the spanking new riverfront arena that had just a few weeks earlier replaced Olympia Stadium as the home of the Red Wings. That evening 21,002 people – at the time, the largest crowd in NHL history – jammed The Joe, eager to bust their lungs greeting a returning hero.
Howe had left Detroit several years earlier with a bitter taste in his mouth. In 1969 he had become Detroit’s first $100,000-a-year player, but only after catching owner Bruce Norris in an egregious lie. Norris had always assured No. 9 that he always would be the highest-paid Wing. The trusting superstar had taken him at his word, only to discover in a conversation with teammate Bobby Baun that the newly acquired defenseman was making nearly double his $45,000 salary. Another teammate, defenseman Carl Brewer, also was paid more. Norris had no choice but to boost Howe’s contract into the six-figure category, where it had rightfully belonged for some time.
Howe’s relationship with Norris turned even more sour when he retired in 1971. Promised important responsibilities as a Wings vice president, the man who had re-written the NHL record book while leading the Wings to four Stanley Cups in the 1950s was instead given the “mushroom treatment.” As the frustrated Howe explained it, he was kept in the dark until every once in a while somebody opened the door to his tiny office to shovel some more shit on him.
In June 1973, Howe quit the Wings and came out of retirement to play alongside his sons, Marty and Mark, on the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. At the same time that Detroit and other NHL teams were trying to keep their players from jumping to the rival WHA, Howe’s signing embarrassed the Wings and gave the struggling circuit a big shot of credibility and a high dose of publicity. Defying natural law, Howe scored 100 points, was named the WHA’s MVP, and led the Aeros to their first of two straight league championships.
As the Wings struggled throughout the 1970s – a dark, dispiriting decade of losing and constant coaching changes—Howe dominated the WHA, burnishing his image as a tough, ageless phenomenon. Once, during a brawl with the Indianapolis Races, Roger Cote had Marty Howe on the ice. “He was running his jersey across his throat,” Mark Howe recalled. “I was trying to get to him, but I was being held back.”
That’s when Pops got involved. “My dad went over to the guy and said, ‘Get up,’” Mark said. “The guy looked at him kind of funny and went right back to it. My dad said it again, ‘Get up.’ He still didn’t.
“So my dad took his two fingers – and they’re thick – and rammed them up the guy’s nose and lifted him off. The guy flew off. It was the ugliest thing I’ve seen.”
Having retired from the Wings with 786 goals, 1,023 assists, and 1,809 points, and more than 20 other NHL records, Howe added 174 goals and 508 points in six WHA seasons. The last two were spent in Hartford, which gave him a 10-year, $5-million personal-services contract after the Howes’ attempts to return to the Wings in 1977 were rebuffed.
Howe might have hung up his skates for good when the WHA died in 1979, but the news that Hartford had been absorbed by the NHL meant that the three Howes could finally realize a lifelong dream of playing an NHL game together in Detroit. During the 1979-80 season, Hartford—now a member of the Norris Division—played twice in Detroit. In the first contest, played January 12, 1980 at The Joe, Gordie and his sons lined up for the opening face-off as the crowd chanted “Gor-die! Gor-die!” The Howes starred as the Whalers beat the Wings, 6-4. Afterwards, he said, “I’ve been waiting for it for 32 years.”
Howe’s relationship with the public had always been magical. He was a rarity among athletes, a genuinely humble, likable fellow who always gave his all and never lost his common touch. There were countless stories of his unaffectedness and generosity of spirit. How he signed autographs for three hours after a tough loss…how he treated an entire neighborhood to ice cream…how he promised a sick kid a goal or helped push a motorist out of the snow on his way to practice. He could never willingly turn down an autograph request, he explained. He had worked too hard for the privilege.
All of this and more were on the minds of the 21,002 fans who squeezed into Joe Louis Arena for the 32nd Annual All-Star Game. Cheers were abundant as the players representing the Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell conferences were introduced. Then Howe, a grandfather just a few weeks shy of his 52nd birthday, the scorer of 15 goals in his 32nd major-league season, skated out.
The handclaps and scattered chants of “Gor-die! Gor-die!” quickly coalesced into a steady, frenzied ovation, the loudest and most prolonged ever heard in the building. Everybody was on their feet, stamping and whistling and knocking beer and popcorn all over themselves, while all Gordie could do was awkwardly shuffle his skates and dab a wet eye. TV and radio announcers had enough sense to be silent and let the roar of affection speak for itself. The cheers continued to flow down from the slanted stands and wash over the balding, slope-shouldered object of adoration. At one point Howe skated over to the bench, where trainer Lefty Wilson was assisting the Prince of Wales squad.
“Lefty, help me,” he pleaded.
Wilson responded in the rough humor of the locker room. “Fuck you, Gordie,” he said.
The heartfelt ovation on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter lasted nearly three full minutes. It demonstrated what Detroit fans had always felt about the man. Gordie Howe was the greatest, even if the team he had once so ably represented no longer was.