By Rob Ficiur
On December 2, 2014, Gordie Howe suffered a series of strokes. The chances of him living through seemed slim. The chances going returning to Saskatchewan two months later were zero. Problem was no one told Gordie and this past week the 86 year old Hall of Famer flew to Saskatoon for the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity dinner. Here hockey players and media had the celebrated the life of Canada’s most popular athlete. (Can you think of any other athlete of today that would get this type of response?)
The first year I followed hockey was 1970-71; and after that season Gordie Howe retired. That season the 42 year old Howe scored 23 goals and 52 points for the last place Detroit Red Wings. Why is it that 44 years later Gordie Howe is so well respected and remembered by hockey fans – most of whom never saw him play in his prime?
1. On Ice Records: Gordie Howe set, and still holds, many on NHL records. He is second in all time NHL goals with 801. But if we count his 174 goals in the World Hockey Association he is still the all-time goal scoring leader in professional hockey. Gordie holds the record for most NHL games played at 1767. Playing that many years and that many games in the NHL takes a special competitiveness and endurance. The closest active players to the all times game record is Jaromir Jagr with 1473.
2. Howe Played with his Sons – When Gordie Howe played six seasons in the World Hockey Association, two of his team mates were his sons Marty and Mark Howe. If more hockey players played from age 45- 51 they might also play with their sons. A few baseball players have played with their sons – but Mr. Hockey is the only hockey player to have played NHL games with his children.
3. Played for the Love of the Game – After nineteen NHL seasons (1965) with the Detroit Red Wings, Gordie Howe was making $27,500 per year. Those 1965 dollars would be the equivalent of $206,766 dollars in 2014. It was still a good wage, but unlike the stars of today, no players in that era made enough money in one year to live for the rest of their lives. None of the players of Howe’s era were paid anywhere near what they should have been paid. Gordie and people of his day played on.
4. Gordie played a physical game – Gordie is also known for being a fierce player. He was not afraid to go into the corners and use his body and elbows (allegedly). It is amazing that Howe lasted so many decades as he did being such a physical player. Hockey Lore now defines a Gordie Howe Hat Trick as a goal, an assist and a fight in one game. Like many legends of our time the Gordie Howe Hat Trick is more myth than fact. No one kept track of this statistic during Howe’s playing career – but it is believed to that Howe only accomplished this feat twice in his career. The all-time leader of Gordie Howe Hat Tricks is Rick Tocket with 18; the active leader is Jerome Iginla with 9.
5. Grandfather looked after Grandmother –
Gordie Howe married Coleen Joffa in 1953. Coleen came to be known as Mrs. Hockey. At age forty, Gordie scored 44 goals and 103 points. After this great season Coleen found out that Gordie was the third highest paid player on the Red Wings. She went to Detroit management and negotiated a substantial raise for her husband. Coleen was a part of Gordie’s career.
In 2002 Coleen (now 69 years old) was diagnosed with Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia. Gordie’s primary job for the next seven years was to look after his bride of 55 years. After she died in 2009, Gordie and his family help raise money and awareness of this disease.
6. He is Gordie … Mr. Hockey –
Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull, and just about every sports reporter in Canada attended the dinner in Saskatoon to honor Mr. Hockey. Gretzky talked about how inspiring it was to meet Gordie Howe as an 11 year old he first met Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey treated the up and coming Great One with respect and humor (a picture of a hockey stick around Wayne’ neck).
I met Mr. Hockey about 30 years ago when he was signing autographs at a small Lethbridge video store. My brother and I collected all the Gordie Howe hockey cards we could find and hoped he would sign them. As I recall there were about a dozen people in line but Gordie took his time and visited with each person. When I got to the front of the line he treated me like I was the most important hockey fan he had ever met. I had three cards for him to sign. The first was a WHA card which had a picture of Gordie and his two sons Mark and Marty. He seemed pleased that there was a card with his boys.
My minute with Gordie Howe confirmed what I had heard all my life, he was and still is Mr. Hockey.