Three Wise Red Wings: Mike, Chris, and Gordon

Interesting that two of the major stories involving the Red Wings this past summer involved old veterans making decisions about their involvement with the team.

Livonia’s Mike Modano, who turned 40 in June, had been cast adrift by his franchise of 20 years — the Dallas Stars. The likely Hall of Famer considered various offers, and ultimately decided to come home to Detroit, where he hopes he can play a role in another Stanley Cup-winning effort by the Wings in what might be his final year of NHL competition.

Another headline story centered around the retirement of war horse Chris Chelios, 48, a future Hall of Fame shoo-in following his 26 years of blue-line defensive play for four NHL franchises, including the Red Wings from 1999-2009. He rejoins the team now as an advisor to the Wings’ front office and coaching staff.

What’s striking about both stories is that the two perennial stars have not only survived but have played quality hockey into their 40s, notable achievements in a game so grinding, so demanding and violent. The list of outstanding NHLers who have played into near middle-age is a short but distinguished one.

Then there is Gordie Howe.

What the examples of Modano and Chelios bring into stark relief is the astounding record of Detroit’s greatest hockey star; indeed the best all-around player in the game’s history. And the most durable and long-lasting star participant in any contact sport.

Modano and Chelios have had outstanding careers. Howe’s was absolutely astonishing. The high-scoring and slick-skating Modano has obviously slowed as he progressed through his late 30s. While his best season was 1993-94, when at the age of 24 he scored 50 goals out of 93 total points for the Stars, he had dropped off to seasons with 21, 15, and 14 goals over the past three years, playing at the ages of 37 to 39. The decline, at that age, is understandable, predictable.

Gordie Howe had his greatest statistical season in 1968-69, scoring 44 goals with 103 total points. He was 40 years old. That bears repeating — 40. He continued to play quality hockey until the age of 52, skating alongside two of his sons for his last seven seasons. He had years with 31, 34, 32, 24, and 34 goals at the ages of 46 to 50. He “retired” at 52, a full-fledged grandfather, playing all 80 games his final year and scoring a respectable 15 goals for the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, his 32nd season.

A few other pertinent facts: Gordie was a “giant,” no? That’s what he was often called back in his glory days of the 1950s, when he rose to unmatched prominence in the NHL. The big, rough winger from Saskatoon, who could not only outskate but out-punch and generally terrorize his league opponents. Gordie the powerful “giant” was 6 feet tall, and weighed — at most — 205 pounds. Mike Modano is listed at 6’ foot 3, and 212 pounds. Chelios is 6-foot 1, and 190 pounds, roughly Gordie’s size.

Former Red Wing dandy Sergei Federov was bigger than Howe.

The comparisons — many of them more striking than those previously cited — could go on and on. Onetime Red Wings coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Bill Gadsby has said that he believes Gordie to be the greatest athlete of the 20th Century … period. Not just hockey player, but all-around athlete. Gordie himself has said that soccer was his best game. He was a par golfer and instructor in his mid-teens, using both right and left-handed clubs. It was believed, after he had violently dispatched all challengers in the NHL, that he could have been heavyweight champion of the world had he set his sights on boxing. And he supplemented his meager NHL income in the early 1950s by playing semi-pro baseball in western Canada, regularly hitting in the high .300s and pounding the ball out of parks all over the far provinces.

An excited scout for the New York Yankees who traveled from the American northeast assured him, after eyeballing some games in the summer of 1952, that he would be the future third baseman for the big team … until he sheepishly had to re-approach the unassuming Howe to ask if … wait a minute … he was THE Gordon Howe … the famous hockey player? It seems the home office in New York City was keen to know.

One final word. I said Gordie “retired” … in quotes … in 1980. That’s not entirely true. He was dropped from his team. The Whalers called him in and told him his services were no longer required, or desired. His worldwide fame and enduring story weighed heavily on an otherwise young and struggling team. He could have gone back to defense from his right wing position, and played on for several years more with other clubs. But he was convinced to hang ‘em up at age 52. So he did, despite his competitive instincts, and he held a press conference to announce that “retirement.”

And that is why, if you’ve ever seen the video of that announcement, the normally placid Gordie flared at one point …when asked if he were leaving because the game had passed him by. In a most unHowelike moment … Gordie eyed his questioner with a predatory stare, and spat out his reply: “I can damn well still play this game.”

And we all know … damn well … that he could.