Gordie Howe is referred to as simply “Mr. Hockey”. World War II had just ended when he first entered the National Hockey League, and when he played his final NHL season 33 years later, Wayne Gretzky was playing his first. Over those five decades, Howe didn’t just survive, he was dominant – on the scoring lists, in battles in the corners, on game-winning goals and when the year-end awards were handed out. He was a big man, though by modern standards no behemoth, but what set him apart was his incredible strength.
Though other superstars could be deemed somewhat better scorers, tougher fighters or faster skaters, no player has approached Gordie Howe’s sustained level of excellence. Incredibly, Gordie finished in the top 5 in NHL scoring for 20 straight seasons. To endure and excel, Howe needed a unique set of qualities, both physical and mental, and the foundations for his astonishing career were laid in him from an early age.
Howe grew and matured quickly, and when he was 15 he made a bid to play with the New York Rangers, attending the team’s training camp in Winnipeg. He was homesick, however, and before the end of the camp he returned to Saskatchewan. He made a better impression with the Detroit Red Wings the next year, joining a group of Red Wing veterans and untried youngsters to work out in front of Detroit boss Jack Adams. The ambidextrous Howe drew Adams’ attention from the start with a sizzling rush down the left wing and a sharp shot. The next minute he escaped down the right wing, switched his stick to the other side and still with a forehand zipped another shot at the goal.
Howe made his professional debut when he was 18, taking up the right wing for Detroit at the beginning of the 1946-47 season. He was 6′ tall and just over 200 pounds, making him one of the heavier players in the league…
…Apart from his forbidding temperament, Howe’s athletic and savvy playing style also contributed to his longevity. He never wasted energy if he didn’t need to, especially after he cut down on the number of fights he’d take part in early in his career. He was economical with his movements, anticipating when and where the play would intersect with his effortless progress around the ice. He often played 45 minutes of a game when the average total was 25. Observers noticed that when his exhausted line returned to the bench, Howe was the first to recover and raise his head, ready for another shift.
In all, Howe was selected to 21 NHL All-Star squads, 12 times to the First Team. Six times he led the NHL in scoring to capture the Art Ross Trophy and six times he won the Hart as the league’s most valuable player. His Detroit teams won the Stanley Cup four times.
Howe had been in his prime during a defensive era, the 1940s and 1950s, when scoring was difficult and checking was tight. When he was 40, in 1967, the league expanded from six to 12 teams and the number of offensive opportunities grew with it. Howe played the 1968-69 season on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich, the mercurial but talented star who had moved to Detroit from Toronto. Mahovlich was big, fast and skilled and Delvecchio was a gifted playmaker. The three were dubbed “the Production Line 3” and Howe’s scoring returned to the levels of his youth and then beyond. He topped 100 points for the first time, scoring 44 goals and adding a career-high 59 assists.
Read on for much more and watch the Legends of Hockey profile of Gordie Howe below.
Wayne T. ‘Tom’ Helfrich shared this photo by longtime Michigan news photographer Ed Noble, then of the Pontiac Press and later of the Oakland Press. Tom writes that Ed had a photo shoot with Gordie and knew he was a big fan and brought him this print. View the photo bigger and see more great old shots in his Detroit Red Wings slideshow.