Thirty years ago today hockey fans were treated to an unforgettable historic moment at the newly christened Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Returning to the city where he starred for twenty five seasons, 51 year old Hartford Whaler right winger Gordie Howe, playing in his final season and last All Star game, faced 19 year old rookie sensation Wayne Gretzky, selected to his first NHL All Star contest.
On February 5, 1980, the crowd of 21,002 people that jammed into the Joe was, at the time, the largest ever to witness a hockey game anywhere.
After retiring from the Red Wings in 1971 followed by two frustrating years as a club executive, Howe starred in the WHA for six years with Houston and the Whalers playing along side sons Mark and Marty. In the 1978-1979 season, Wayne Gretzky’s only year in the WHA, the budding superstar played for Indianapolis and Edmonton. When the upstart league folded at season’s end, Howe’s Whalers and Gretzky’s Oilers (along with Quebec and Winnipeg) merged into the NHL.
Although it was the biggest stage that the sport’s two greatest players would ever share, the game will always be remembered for the thunderous standing ovation Detroit fans showered upon Howe, Gretzky’s childhood idol and one of the Motor City’s most fabled sports legends.
For the pre-game introduction, PA announcer John Bell wisely introduced Howe last, but not by name. It was hardly necessary.
“……And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey, the greatest statesman for five decades, number nine!”, Bell announced as the crowd quickly rose to their feet in unison.
Although witnesses said it felt like a twenty minute ovation, the Joe Louis Arena crowd stood and cheered chanting, “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie” for four minutes until Bell interrupted the deafening roar by introducing national anthem singers Roger Doucet and Roger Whitaker.
On the CBC telecast, play by play announcer Dan Kelly remarked to color sidekick Dick Irvin, “Well Mr. Irvin, I’d hate to see what happens if that number 9 for the Wales Conference would score a goal. Do you think we’d finish the game?”
For Mr. Hockey the Detroit ovation that night has been especially treasured and one he never expected to be so long and loud.
“I had the same feelings for the fans as they had towards me. I was very emotional and the fans were getting to me, so I skated over to Lefty Wilson (Wing’s trainer) on the bench and asked for help so I would be normal again. Lefty was bilingual, he spoke English and profanity. He said something to me I can’t repeat, and it worked” Howe says smiling.
But the man Howe is eternally grateful to is Scotty Bowman, who coached the 1980 Wales Conference All Star squad.
“When Scotty picked me to play he really stuck his nose out because I later learned there was opposition to me playing,” says Howe, who at the All Star break, had 11 goals. “I have so much respect for that man.”
Bowman insisted that the man he calls hockey’s greatest player play in the game.
I said if Gordie didn’t play I wouldn’t coach,” the Hall of Fame coach says. “It was a natural for him to play that game in Detroit. I didn’t care what anybody thought. I knew he could still play and it turned out perfect.”
During his record 23 rd NHL All Star game, every time Howe took a shift, the excited crowd cheered and chanted his name hoping to see number nine turn the red light on again in Detroit.
Near the end of the first period, Howe received the puck on a silver platter 30 feet at point blank range in front of Campbell Conference goalie Tony Esposito. He fired his patented “snapshot” right at Esposito who stopped the puck as the crowd let out a collective groan. The Blackhawk goalie promptly skated off the ice having been injured on Howe’s still vicious shot.
“I wanted to shoot it low on his stick side but I pulled it,” Howe says, still seemingly frustrated. “I was unhappy with my performance because I missed that goal. I was nervous because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Afterwards I wondered what the crowd would have done had I scored.”
But before the game ended, Howe’s name would be announced on the loudspeaker prompting a thunderous roar.
Just three minutes after Red Wing Reed Larson gave the Wales Conference a 5-3 lead, and with just 4 minutes remaining in the game, Howe stole the puck twice before threading the needle on his perfect pass from the boards behind the net to Real Cloutier who fired the puck past goalie Pete Peeters. Howe’s last assist in All Star competition capped off a magical evening for the packed crowd.