Probably a couple of years ago now, I wrote about my Dad’s one public (within my earshot, at least) ‘nod’ to Gordie Howe: that is, out of the 802 NHL regular-season goals Gordie scored, plus another 68 in the playoffs, Dad grudgingly gave Howe credit for scoring a grand total of one 'nice' goal.
For my Dad, that was about as far as he was willing to go, in terms of giving credit to the Red Wing great. He just never was a fan of Gordie, and remained forever loyal to his guy, Rocket Richard, to Dad's dying day. Dad was so devoted to the Canadiens that he found Howe breaking the Rocket’s all-time record for regular-season goals (544) hard to accept. My Dad took his hockey very, very seriously. He saw the Rocket as the greatest goal scorer there was and while he admired Howe's all-around skill, Dad loved the Rocket. And there's no question that Richard was a more dynamic and explosive player, a guy who scored countless legendary goals, especially at playoff time. (To see my original story on the one goal Dad gave Howe 'credit' for, click here.)
What made me think about Gordie is that I saw somewhere that the Vancouver Giants of the Western Junior League were having a special birthday celebration for Howe this weekend, who turns 85 at the end of March. Howe is apparently suffering from a number of ailments, and earlier, had a difficult go of things when his longtime partner and wife Colleen (who my wife and I had an opportunity to meet and chat with many years ago- a nice lady) endured a lengthy battle with Pick’s disease.
The Giants have brought in some former Howe rivals like Bobby Hull as well as ex-Leafs Pat Quinn and Johnny Bower (a dear friend of Howe's) to be part of the celebration. Howe and Bower (pictured in early '60s game-action below at Maple Leaf Gardens, in wonderful old Harold Barkley photo) had some classic duels, especially memorable ones in the playoffs in the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 1963 and 1964.
It will no doubt be a touching tribute in Vancouver.
I never had the same problem with Howe as a player that my Dad had. Of course, I was a Leaf fan, not a Montreal guy, so Gordie wasn’t breaking a record set by my favourite player. That said, I never liked the Wings as such, though I certainly didn’t hate them the way I did the Habs, and in later years, the Bruins and Flyers.
Now, when I was really young, Howe was one of the few guys on opposing teams that, when he was on the ice, I was (as a Leaf fan) really nervous. Bobby Hull was probably the other guy in that category for me in the early 1960s. He killed the Leafs many nights, just like Howe. (In later years Bobby Orr with the Bruins was the guy you didn’t want to see on the ice, yet he always was, it seemed.) Howe wasn’t the fastest guy on skates. He actually seemed to be in the same ‘gear’ all the time. But he was so strong on the puck, a very big player for his era renowned for his toughness and quick, 'heavy' wrist shot.
I was never as dispirited as Dad when Gordie achieved various milestones, passing the Rocket with goal number 545, then on to 600, 700 and, upon his return to the NHL in 1979-’80 at the age of 51, 800 career regular-season goals. You see, Dad always maintained that Howe scored most of his goals from the slot, and that opposing teams didn’t check Howe as closely as they should. Back in the 1960s, Dad would say that Gordie would probably still be playing when the Red Wing winger was fifty- and also probably scoring 20 goals a season just standing there in the slot in front of the net. (Dad was actually quite the prophet. Howe played until he was 51, and I think he scored 15 goals in his final season with the Hartford Whalers.)
Dad’s objections to the contrary, the Howe goal I remember best of all was scored at the end of the 1969-’70 season. The Wings were in a desperate fight to make the playoffs, something they hadn’t done since losing to Montreal in the Cup finals in 1966. They had gone through some down years but in ’69-’70, Detroit used a combination of old guys like Howe and Alex Delvecchio, along with longtime Maple Leafs Frank Mahovlich, Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun to get the job done. They also relied a lot on defenseman Gary Bergman and youngsters like Nick Libett, as well as Pete Stemkowski, and Gary Unger (more former Leafs) and solid two-way winger Bruce MacGregor, a fine all-around player, to fight for a playoff berth.
As I recall, they had Roger Crozier and Roy Edwards in goal, both netminders who, when hot, were very good. (Both, oddly enough, caught with their left-hand, if I’m not mistaken. I can’t remember if any other team has ever had two regular goalies that were both left-handed.)
In any event the playoff race came down to the final weekend. Montreal, New York and Detroit were fighting for the final spots in the “Eastern” Conference. This was an unusual position for Montreal to be in, in light of their history and the fact that they had won the Stanley Cup four of the previous five seasons.
So as the final weekend of games arrived, the Wings had a home and home series with the Rangers scheduled. What was rare was that the Wings were at home on a Saturday night. They were almost always on the road on Saturday and home on Sunday. (It was problematic for me when they were at home on a Saturday, because it meant that the Leaf game on CBC was blacked out in our area, which in turn meant no games at all—the only place in Canada with that problem.)
In a rare and surprising twist, the Wings did not lift the blackout of the CBC game, but because their game was a sellout and there was so much interest, the Wings showed their home game against New York on their local UHF channel, the station that usually broadcast the Red Wing road games. So it was kind of a treat to see the Wings at home (the Leafs were missing the playoffs anyway so their game was meaningless that night).
The game itself was fantastic, a lot of back and forth action between two teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Rangers under General Manager (I think he was coaching them at that point, too) Emile Francis were in the midst of building a really strong team. Future Hall-of-Famer Harry Howell was gone, but they had Brad Park, Jim Neilson and Rod Seiling on defense, Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, Vic Hadfield along with ex-Leafs Ron Stewart and Bob Nevin up front, with Eddie Giacomin in goal. They were a strong team.
The Wings were leading (here my memory may be off; I don't remember the precise score, but someone can maybe write in with the details if they remember this more clearly) early in the third period in a must-win game, because if they lost, their chances of winning in New York the next day weren’t good. Secretly (at least in front of my Dad) I was cheering that night for the Wings because I didn’t want Montreal to make the playoffs.
So early in the third period, Howe took a pass and broke in alone from the blue line in. Gordie was skating faster than usual, with a breakaway opportunity in front of him. (Gordie usually had the same, steady, consistent stride going, effortless, strong…but he rarely tried to “turn on the jets”.) He sped down the wing and cut toward the middle of the ice. As he approached Giacomin, he cut across the front of the crease and suddenly did something with his hands. I had always heard that Howe, supposedly, could “switch” hands, and could in fact shoot with both hands.
Well, I think that’s exactly what he did. There was some sleight of hand involved, because it wasn’t just a straightforward deke from the forehand to the backhand, at least not the way I remember it. Howe scored with an absolutely beautiful move, a huge goal that put the Wings up by two goals and clinched the victory, which assured the Wings of their playoff berth.
It was, without a doubt, the nicest goal I’d ever seen Howe score. Frankly, a lot of his goals were like Phil Esposito used to score in later years, standing in the slot, etc.—just like my Dad always claimed. But this one was special, and I’ve always remembered it.
I could end the story there, but I feel compelled to add that the Wings’ effort that night was somewhat undone by what they did after after the game- and the next day. They celebrated so hard that, by the time they travelled to New York for the return match, which was on Sunday afternoon, like 14 hours later (if that), they looked like they were still hung over. They lost 9-5 and were, well, awful. The 9 goals New York scored gave them a “goals for” nod over Montreal, which was the “tie-breaker” rule in effect at the time.
Montreal later that night needed to either beat Chicago in Chicago to clinch a spot, or lose but score 5 goals, I think it was. Montreal lost and despite pulling their goalie for the last several minutes of the game, couldn’t score enough goals to catch the Rangers.
The Wings made the playoffs, but fittingly - after their Sunday performance against the Rangers on that Sunday afternoon - lost in four straight in the opening round against Chicago.
All this said, I’ll always remember Howe’s goal on that Saturday night at the old Olympia as something out of the ordinary. He was one of the class acts in the game of hockey and is a beloved figure to this day. I hope his 85th is special.