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Remembering Mr. Hockey

Jun 17, 2016

Gordie Howe lived so long that most Americans don’t know that he set just about every record there is, he helped the sport expand, he got hundreds of thousands of Americans playing the game, and millions more watching.

Howe was one of nine kids born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sasketchewan – a town so tiny, their post office closed in 1923. During the Great Depression, a neighbor brought over a gunnysack full of used things, including a beat-up pair of skates.

Howe’s mom gave her a few bucks, and Gordie the skates. “I put those on,” Howe recalled, “and I never took ‘em off.”

Howe was skilled, smart, and tough – the most complete player the sport ever produced. He was even ambidextrous, with the ability to switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed shot while barreling down on the goalie.

Put it all together, and you get what they called “The Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” consisting of a goal, an assist, and a fight, all in the same game.

During Howe’s 26-year career, he set records for most goals, most points, most games, most …almost everything. He finished in the top ten in scoring for 21 straight years, which is impossible. No one else, in any team sport, has come close.

But his impact was greater than a bunch of records. What Arnold Palmer and Pele did for their sports in America, Gordie Howe did for hockey: he served as his sport’s greatest ambassador, the man they called, “Mr. Hockey,”

Howe inspired just about every town in Michigan to build an ice rink. The Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Stanley Cup with seven players who played on those rinks, in little league, high school or college.

The head coach at the University of Michigan, Red Berenson, left Canada for Ann Arbor in 1958, in part so he could watch Gordie Howe play in Detroit.

Usually it’s a mistake to meet your heroes, but not Howe. He remained humble, and always took the time for his fans. As fellow Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby said, “The only guy in the locker room who didn’t know Mr. Hockey was Mr. Hockey, was Mr. Hockey.”

When Wayne Gretzky was only eleven, Howe attended a banquet to celebrate the budding star. But when Gretzky got to the podium, he couldn’t speak.

Howe rescued him by saying, “When someone has done what this kid has done, he doesn't have to say anything.”

Gretzky never forgot Howe’s graciousness when he needed it most.

If Gretzky was the alpha, I was the omega: a third-line right-winger for the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats. When I was a junior, in 1980, I recognized Howe at an airport counter. I couldn’t resist: “Excuse me, but you’re Gordie Howe, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” he said softly, and thanked me for not making a scene. I quietly praised him, then added -- for reasons I still cannot fathom – that my favorite player was his longtime linemate, Alex Delvecchio, an amazing passer who set up hundreds of Howe’s goals.

When Howe stared at me, I thought I might’ve offended him. But then he gave me a wink and a nod, and said, “Mine, too, sonny. Mine, too.”

And that was Mr. Hockey.

John U. Bacon  is the author of four New York Times bestsellers.  His most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," is on the list now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.