Gordie Howe’s last home game with the Red Wings

The Red Wings

The Red Wings gave Gordie Howe a sendoff on April 3, 1971, but his career was actually long from over.

A lot had happened since his first game as a Detroit Red Wing, way back on October 16, 1946.

He was only 18 years old at that time, just a kid out of Saskatchewan with a lot of potential. That was 25 years ago. After six scoring titles, six Hart Trophies, 23 All-Star Games, and four Stanley Cup championships, Gordie Howe was playing in his last home game for the Wings.

It was April 3, 1971, an eventful closing act to a dreary season for Detroit. They would finish in last place in the National Hockey League’s East Division, with a record of 22-45-11, good for 55 points. Only the California Golden Seals managed fewer points in the NHL (45).

The glory days of the Wings were long gone, but for one final night, Detroit wanted to give Mr. Hockey a grand send-off. The Chicago Black Hawks, a traditional rival, were in town to help the Wings close out their home season at Olympia Stadium.

A pre-game ceremony was planned to honor his 25 seasons as a Wing, but it was also a sort of birthday celebration. Actually, he’d turned 43 on March 31, but the Wings were in Toronto on that day. That had been Howe’s final game in the storied Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Leafs presented him with a silver tray before the puck dropped.

Now, back in Detroit, Howe could get his birthday bash. In addition, he had been named the team’s most valuable player by the Detroit chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, so the team’s management figured this was a great way to pay tribute to that as well.

All of the 14,738 fans in attendance received a special badge reading: “Silver Anniversary, Gordie Howe.”

It was the late Jack Adams, the Wings’ renowned coach and general manager, who had brought Howe to Detroit over a quarter century ago. It was fitting, therefore, that Howe presented Mrs. Adams a bouquet of flowers at the pre-game ceremony. The team showered Howe with other various gifts, along with a birthday cake.

It was also Trophy Night at Olympia, which meant that a few other Red Wings received some hardware.

Tom Webster, left winger, received the James D. Norris Trophy for being the team’s high scorer. He also took home the Bruce A. Norris Trophy for the most points, and the Red Wings’ rookie of the year award from the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association.

For showing the best sportsmanship, Red Wing Alex Delvecchio was the recipient of the annual Stu Evans Trophy.

Finally, there was the Travelers’ Club Trophy for the most exciting Red Wing player, which went to Serge Lajeunesse.

Chicago got out to a quick 1-0 lead. At 1:34 into the second period, Howe rapped the puck over Hawk’s Hall of Fame goalie Tony Esposito, who was down from a previous save. The goal put the Wings on the scoreboard, with assists credited to Don Luce and Jim Niekamp. It ended Detroit’s ridiculous scoring drought against Chicago; the Wings had gone 150 minutes and eleven seconds without finding the net against the Hawks.

The Black Hawks, however, erupted for three goals in the third period to put the game away. Howe’s goal was the only highlight of the night in a 4-1 loss, the Wings’ sixth in as many games against Chicago that season (Detroit had also lost all four games against the Black Hawks in the previous year’s Stanley Cup quarterfinals.).

It was Howe’s 23rd goal of the season, and his last ever as a Red Wing.

Chicago’s Dennis Hull scored twice against Detroit goalie Jim Rutherford. Dennis’s brother (and future Hall of Famer) Bobby Hull also played on that Black Hawk team. Bobby, of course, is the father of Brett Hull, who later starred with the Wings. Another Hall of Famer, Stan Mikita, also scored for the Hawks, as did Danny O’Shea.

Despite the mediocre showing that year, the Wings drew 512,152 fans to the old brick barn, the club’s second-highest total in club history at the time.

It was the end of an era for Detroit hockey. Howe returned to the ice with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. For generations of fans, however, he would always remain a Detroit Red Wing.