Reports that Gordie Howe is fighting his way back from a serious health setback have been encouraging to hear. Now 86, Howe is indeed one of those ‘larger-than-life’ figures of the game—arguably the most recognizable name in hockey for well over half a century.
Those who saw him play in person know how commanding a presence he was on the ice. I had the opportunity to see him play on a few occasions at the old Detroit Olympia back in the early and mid 1960s, and he was simply a superb all-around player.
Besides the fact that my Dad didn’t like Gordie (Dad, as I’ve written here many times before, was a devoted Hab supporter who loved Rocket Richard, Howe’s rival) here’s what I remember about Howe:
He was one of the only opposing (meaning against the Leafs) players in my lifetime who made me genuinely nervous when he was on the ice. Bobby Hull was in that category, along with Bobby Orr when he later joined the NHL, Jean Beliveau and in the 1970s, Gilbert Perreault with the Sabres. But Howe was at the top of the list, along with Orr.
I remember two goals that Howe scored that stand out, (beyond his record setting goals, like numbers #544 and 545 against Charlie Hodge and Gump Worsley, which tied and broke Richard’s record- the picture above right shows Howe with teammate Bill Gadsby after the record-breaking marker) : one was a goal he scored near the end of his NHL career in the late 1960s/early ‘70s. It was in Philadelphia against Bernie Parent, before Parent was later traded to the Leafs. Howe was behind the Flyer net with the puck. Standing still, right behind Parent, he quickly—and deftly—made a quick fake one way and then went the other way and slid the puck into the net, while Parent was still looking the other way. It wasn’t exactly the Gilmour spinorama in the ’93 playoffs, but the simplicity of the play was yet another indication of how smart a player Howe was.
The other goal was in the second to last regular season game of the 1969-’70 season. The Wings needed to beat the Rangers at the Olympia to clinch a playoff spot. The Wings had not been in the playoffs since 1966. Detroit games were always blacked out in our area but a special exception was made by the Red Wings so local fans could see the game. (It was shown on the local UHF station.) In the third period, Howe took a pass and cruised in alone from the wing on Ranger netminder Eddie Giacomin. I don’t know what Howe did, but he did something with his hands at the last second and deked Giacomin to score a gorgeous, game-clinching goal. There had always been discussion of Howe’s ability to shoot with either hand. He may well have switched hands on the deke on that goal.
When I have the opportunity now to watch old film of the Leaf-Red Wing Stanley Cup finals from 1963 and ’64, I am reminded how good a player Howe really was. He was already a veteran of more than 15 years in the NHL at that point, but he was outstanding. Detroit could easily have won the championship in 1964. Howe was a handful for the Leafs. He made the players around him better, and could play (and often did) between 35 and 40 minutes a night.
You could sometimes see Howe resting on his skates during breaks in the action, catching his breath so he could save his energy for when it mattered. (Bobby Orr, who also rarely seemed to leave the ice, did much the same thing.)
Howe never had Richard’s remarkable propensity for playoff overtime goals, and Richard well earned his reputation as the greatest clutch player of his era. But Howe (who helped the Wings win four Stanley Cups in the early 1950s) was consistently excellent, a masterful all-around player who, if needed, could play defense when called upon.
Other memories? My Dad met Gordie one time at the local train station in Windsor, Ontario. Dad was there to pick up my brother, but while waiting, he noticed some Detroit players were hanging around the station. (I seem to recall that the Red Wings were on their way to Montreal for a game.) Gordie was sitting there quietly, doing a crossword puzzle, but made the time to talk with Dad.
Maybe a decade or more ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Gordie and his wife Colleen at a function we were invited to. Both were very gracious and Colleen was great to speak with. They were both absolutely down to earth, genuine people.
My Dad was none too pleased when Gordie chased and eventually broke the Rocket’s goal-scoring record back in the fall of 1963. But even Dad had to concede what a marvelous player Gordie really was. He used to say Gordie could probably still score 20 goals a season when he was 50 years old—and that was a fairly prophetic comment to make back in the mid 1960s, considering what Howe went on to do.
Gordie didn’t stop once he broke Rocket’s record. He scored number 600 at the Forum in Montreal against Worsley (he also scored #500 against Gump when Worsley was with the Rangers). I seem to recall Gordie scored number 700 against Les Binkley and the expansion Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Howe retired after the ’70-’71 season, but returned a couple of years later to play in the World Hockey Association with his sons Mark and Marty. Howe kept playing until the NHL merged with some of the WHA teams, including Gordie’s Hartford Whalers.
Howe scored 15 goals in his last NHL season, at the age of 51. Dad wasn’t far off, eh?
My guess is some VLMers have their own fond memories of the longtime great. He, along with players like Richard, Beliveau, Hull, Orr and many others, of course, helped make hockey the great game it is.