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Famous players and famous goals: Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe and number #545

Any baseball fan knows that Babe Ruth is perhaps the most legendary name in the history of that sport.

So, when Roger Maris made a run at Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 back in 1961, the news media coverage was intense not only in New York city but throughout the United States, and even Canada. Maybe it wouldn’t seem like much compared with today, but for the time, the media focus was such that Maris experienced significant anxiety over the unwanted attention he was receiving.

Things were similarly intense when Hank Aaron (perhaps worse in Aaron’s case, as he received hate mail in the time leading up to his breaking the record) approached and eventually surpassed Ruth’s all-time home run record. Everyone knew the number to beat: 714. It was probably the most famous number in sport and still may be, though not only Aaron but also Barry Bonds have shattered Ruth’s mark.

When I was a youngster, in the hockey world, there were two numbers that really mattered, both established by the greatest pure goal-scorer on his generation: Rocket Richard.

Richard owned the single-season goal mark of 50, established during the 1940s. By the time he retired during training camp in the fall of 1960, he had accumulated a total of 544 regular-season career goals in his splendid, record-shattering career. (If I’m not mistaken, the big name he passed on the way to 544 was Nels Stewart, who had held the all-time record at 324 goals.)

Detroit Red Wing great Gordie Howe never managed to hit the 50-goal mark, though he did score 49 one season (and had another goal that should have been his awarded to a teammate, though he never complained about the error). Howe was, however, very much on Richard’s trail with regards to the all-time regular-season record when the Rocket retired.

At the outset of the 1963-’64 season, Howe was at 540 goals. It was big news where we lived, just across from Detroit. We had access to all the local Red Wing newspaper coverage and of course we listened to all their games on the radio. I so clearly remember following Howe’s exploits early that season. Not too far into the season he tied Richard’s mark with a goal against Montreal goaltender Gump Worsley at the Olympia in Detroit (the photo with this story shows Howe being checked by Montreal’s Gilles Tremblay as he nets the record-tying goal.  If you look closely you can also see the Rocket's brother, Henri Richard, standing at the bench gate.  Further along the bench I think it's captain Jean Beliveau also on his feet following the action). He needed just one more to break the record.

Now, Howe was never seemingly one to feel the pressure quite the way some athletes did. That said, he did seem to press after scoring number 544 and went dry for a couple of weeks. He had his chances (see the photo of Howe against Jacques Plante, the ex-Montreal great, with Vic Hadfield and Harry Howell in the background), but he was stuck on 544.

However, when arch-rival Montreal returned to play the Wings again, Howe excited the home crowd and set off a major celebration after he shot from the wing to beat Charlie Hodge (Hodge and Worsley shared goaltending duties that season for the Habs) and set the new NHL record of 545 career regular-season goals.

Howe didn’t stop there. He scored #600 against Worsley at the Forum in Montreal a couple of seasons later, then number 700 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh. (I believe it was during the 1968-’69 season, against Les Binkley. I remember watching the game on the Detroit UHF station, which showed Red Wing away games at the time in our area, but I could be wrong about who the goalie was.)

Of course, Wayne Gretzky shattered all the records in his remarkable career, surpassing Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and Howe on the way to 894 regular-season NHL goals.

Interestingly, if you combine their NHL and WHA regular-season goal scoring totals, Hull finished with 913 goals (610 in the NHL), Gretzky with 940 and Howe with 974 (801 in the NHL).

While Howe’s total is not officially recognized by the NHL, I still think of him as the all-time record-holder- and I’ll always recall listening to the game on the radio the night he broke the Rocket’s record in the fall of 1963.

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