“If you find you can push someone around, then you push him around.” — Gordie Howe
I’m not always a numbers guy. After all, someone once said “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.”
Numbers can lead to a conclusion that may be inaccurate. But when you look at the numbers in hockey, you get a good picture of what greatness is all about.
That greatness begins with Gordie Howe, a legend who wore the sweater of the Red Wings for a quarter of a century. Howe died five years ago on June 10th. His passing marked the end of a bygone era of professional hockey that we’ll never see again.
When Howe came into the NHL in 1946 he was just 18 years old. But he was an iron-strong 18-year old Canadian who could skate as well as anyone in the league. Howe was born in a farmhouse in Floral, Saskatchewan, and he must have drank a lot of milk: because Gordie’s body grew strong and iron-tough.
The unique brilliance of Howe was the fact that he was both agile and fierce. Many skaters have graced the ice with marvelous ability to circle defenders and dash open for the puck. But the great skaters are often wimps. Then there are the tough guys, who can drop the gloves and pummel opponents with their fists, or punish opposing players with body blows. The thugs are usually lumbering and less skilled with the stick. But not Mr. Gordie Howe.
Gordie could send an enemy player flying (quite literally) against the boards. He intimidated the entire league with his broad shoulders, lumberjack biceps, and thick legs.
As a boy, Gordie wanted nothing more than to be on the ice with a stick in his giant hands. “It’s been said that, while growing up, I ate meals with my skates on. It’s true,” he said.
One of the things that gets forgotten about Howe is that he was an ambidextrous player. In the pro ranks he was one of just a few skaters able to use the straight sticks of his era to shoot either left- or right-handed. And Gordie was adept at using a stick to beat his opponents.
“You should hold the top hand on the stick like you would hold a hammer when you’re driving a nail,” Howe said. “You have the most leverage, and you won’t get your wrist broken.”
This fall will mark the 75th anniversary of Howe’s debut in the National Hockey League. He first pulled the Detroit sweater over his strong neck on October 16, 1946, when he appeared at right wing for the Red Wings. He scored in his first game, at the green age of 18.
How bold was Howe went he entered the NHL? He didn’t back down from a challenge. In his rookie season, playing against many men who were ten or even 15 years his senior, Gordie never shied away from putting up his dukes.
Red Wings coach Jack Adams told his young player, “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?”
Boy, did he.
Howe finished in the top five in scoring for 20 straight seasons. He scored at least 20 goals in 22 consecutive seasons, between 1949 and 1971. Both feats are NHL records. He was a team player too: leading the Wings to four titles and an incredible 11 Stanley Cup titles. More than anyone, Howe made Detroit, “Hockeytown.”
Wayne Gretzky came along and erased most of Gordie’s records. They called Gretzky “The Great One,” and he deserves that nickname. Gretzky’s numbers are so ridiculous that it looks like he was sent down from a higher league to play with mere mortals. When he had finally hung up his skates, Gretzky had scored nearly 100 more goals than Gordie, and in about 300 fewer games.
But it was a different game when Gretzy came into the league: high-scoring with a more wide-open offensive approach. Had the rules been as they were in his day, the only man who might have been able to force Gretzky to give up the puck was Howe.
Gretzky so revered Howe, that when he met him as a child in Canada, he stared in silence at the hockey legend. Gordie played so long that in his final NHL season he played in the All-Star Game with Gretzky when he was 51 and the future “Great One” was 19.
Five years after his death and 75 years after his debut, Gordie Howe is remembered, exalted even. His accomplishments on the ice (a record 39 years as a professional) and his contributions to the game can never be surpassed. He was Detroit’s “Mr. Hockey,” but also remains “Mr. Hockey” for the entire sport.