Long-time hockey fans know Gordie Howe was, for a time, considered the best player of all time.
Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat were superstars in their day in the 1920s and ‘30s. Eddie Shore was the greatest defenseman of that era. Rocket Richard was more dynamic and prolific through the 1940s and ‘50s. Bobby Hull shot harder, but as an all-around player, it wasn’t until Bobby Orr came along that someone other than Howe—in the “modern” era—was thought of as the best of all-time.
Scouts like to talk about “plus” traits in a player. Well, Howe had all kinds of ‘plus’ traits. While not blindingly fast, he was a fairly effortless skater and very strong on—and hard to knock off—his skates. He was as good a passer as there was in his generation. He shot quickly and accurately, mostly with the wrist shot. And, especially early in his career, he could fight and was tough enough that very few guys would tangle with him. He was known for vicious elbows, though usually only in retribution.
Howe was a highly-skilled player, but as significantly, a “tough guy”. Not the kind of player you would picture, say, wearing a helmet in an era when almost no one did?
I raise this because I ran across a picture that I had forgotten about in an old NHL guide. It shows Howe in a game against the Leafs and goalie Cesare Maniago at the Gardens in February of 1961.
Two things stand out as peculiar in the photo: one is that Howe is wearing the captain’s “C”. Though Howe was recognized as Detroit’s best player, the guy who played the most minutes and was the undisputed (if unassuming) team leader in most of his 25 NHL seasons in Detroit, he is not remembered as the team captain. Those credentials belonged to people like Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and finally, Alex Delvecchio. Howe was often an “assistant” captain, but most would not remember him wearing the “C”.
In this picture, though, he is the captain. That season, Howe was, for I believe the only time in his tenure with Detroit, the team captain. If I’m not mistaken, Delvecchio was captain fore the rest of the decade.
The other odd thing about the 1961 photo is that Howe is wearing a helmet. I don’t honestly remember what the issues was, but I’m guessing it would have been after suffering a concussion.
Ten years earlier, in the 1950 playoffs, Howe was very seriously injured during a game against the Leafs. Howe went into the corner to check Teeder Kennedy. Kennedy moved and Howe crashed into the boards and was knocked out, suffering from serious facial and head injuries. Surgery saved his life. Some Red Wing fans blamed Kennedy, but no one else, including Howe, did. It was just an unfortunate incident.
Someone following this site may know whether Howe wore a helmet when he returned to play the following season in 1950-‘51. I really don’t know. But you just never think of Howe wearing a helmet. Not many guys did in the 1950s and early ‘60s—Charlie Burns with the Bruins did, Red Kelly after he joined the Leafs, off and on over the years and Red Berenson when he came to the NHL out of college hockey. More and more guys went that way in the later ‘60s (Montreal’s Bobby Rousseau and J.C. Tremblay come to mind).
In any event, the photo we’re including with this story shows Howe wearing a helmet. I thought it was Warren Godfrey when I first saw this photo, because it’s the kind of helmet Godfrey, a defenseman with the Wings in the early ‘60s, also wore, if I remember correctly.
But it’s Gordie—wearing a helmet for what must have been one of the few times in his career, which spanned about 35 years in all.