NHL legends toast ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe as superbly skilled, scary (with video)
Players from his era gather for birthday celebration, say no better, more complete player in the history of the game
NHL hockey legends Bobby Hull (left) and Marcel Dionne will be on hand when the Vancouver Giants celebrate Gordie Howe’s 85th birthday Friday. The consensus from Original Six players is that Howe was the most complete player ever.
Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG
VANCOUVER — Once upon a time, the well-placed elbow was not as heavily scrutinized as it is today.
When Gordie Howe was tearing up the National Hockey League and building a well-deserved reputation as a guy it would pay to stay away from, the number of players who learned the hard way — with injuries that today would put them in the “quiet room,” just for starters — were never counted.
What television there was, was black and white and grainy. There was no War Room lined with monitors in Toronto. No department of player safety. It would take something along the lines of Maurice Richard punching out a linesman or two players hammering each other over the head with hockey sticks for NHL president Clarence Campbell to hand out a suspension.
“You’d take some smelling salts and go back out there,” Pat Quinn was saying Thursday at the White Spot on Georgia, where Vancouver Giants majority owner Ron Toigo had gathered a handful of hockey legends — Bobby and Dennis Hull, Marcel Dionne, Quinn — to honour Howe’s upcoming 85th birthday, which the Giants will commemorate at Friday’s WHL game against Lethbridge at the Pacific Coliseum.
Not to give away the show, but Michael Bublé will be there with a cake, and Johnny Bower and Orland Kurtenbach and Charlie Hodge and ... hopefully you don’t need subtitles for those names. If you do, ask your dad.
None of those present for the Howe tribute Thursday — Mr. Hockey himself was hung up on a delayed flight from Los Angeles — would hazard a guess as to how many games he’d have sat out in this day and age, multiplied by how many times as a repeat offender, for the headaches he handed out.
“But Gordie and his style, now, would be warned quite regularly, and his pocketbook would be a lot lighter than in the days he played in, when you took care of things on the ice,” said Quinn.
“Gordie just had a big space around him because he’d earned that space, and a lot of guys wouldn’t go near him. That’s why, later on, he didn’t have many altercations, because nobody was going to test him.”
Those who played in the Howe era will never concede that there was a better player in history, records be damned. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Doug Harvey ... Howe, they say, could do everything they could do, and a few things each of them lacked.
“That was the day of the true policeman, too. If you started something with a star player ... I got a job (with Toronto) to look after Dave Keon and Murray Oliver and those guys, that’s the reason I got in there,” said the big Irishman.
“Nobody had to look after Gordie. Gordie looked after them. He had Sid Abel on his line and Ted Lindsay, so he had a mean little bugger that started everything and Gordie would come in and finish it. He’d get you on the ice or he’d get you in the alley. And then Sid Abel, the gentleman, would be over there against the wall, having a beer and watching it happen.”
“Those guys that played in the six-team NHL, they have stories to tell,” said Dionne. “If you fought a guy in Montreal on Saturday, you had to fight him again Sunday in Detroit. A lot of bad blood. There was stick-swinging that if we had it today, the guys would be suspended for years to come.”
“There’s been lots of changes, obviously, since the 60s. I think where it really got stupid for a while — and Gordie was able to play through it, because he had a very mean streak to him — was in the 70s when we expanded so much and World Hockey came in, and we had too many jobs and not enough good players,” Quinn said. “So we started bringing in tough guys that infringed on the rules all the time, and we had bench-clearing brawls, gang fights, sucker-punches were prevalent. There were a lot of guys that did it that way, but they didn’t do it to Gordie.
“But they’d do it to his sons, and then Gordie would exact the payback.”
The Gordie Howe Hat Trick is now part of the hockey lexicon — goal, assist and a fight — but Howe didn’t have to drop the mittens very often.
“He wasn’t mean to anybody who played the game the way he thought it should be played,” said Dennis Hull. “But when somebody got out of line, he took care of it. And today, he probably would have been in Brendan Shanahan’s office a bit. But I think after the first time, Brendan would have been afraid to call him in.”
“You know what? He was a rugged guy, but he would let you know,” said Dionne, whose first Red Wings camp in 1971 was the first season in 27 that Howe didn’t play.
“That was a regrettable situation — they told him to not go on the ice any more. Are you kidding me? Think of it, how stupid that was. The next year was ’72 and the WHA came in and he went (to Houston) with his boys, Mark and Marty, and six years later, he came back to the NHL with Hartford, and I played against him, and then with him in the all-star game.
“Gordie, when you talk about the greatest legends of all time, how are you going to have comparables with all the other superstars ... but as Brad Park once said to me, there’s only one guy you could answer yes to any question. He had everything. Mario was big but he wasn’t physical. Wayne was not. Sidney is a mucker, but you see what happens when you do that now, you get hit more.
“So I think Gordie would have had to tone down, probably, because of suspensions. But he would have been a fierce guy out there. He was born with this.
“The fact that he played 32 years of pro hockey is incredible, but it has taken its toll on his body. You know, he was a great golfer, but he would show me his wrists ... and his knees caved in on him, his elbows, his shoulders. Look at Bobby Hull, he’s got so much arthritis, most of the guys have knee problems, hip replacement. Most athletes today won’t have to face this because they’re looked after earlier, and the therapy is there.”
“Today,” said Dennis Hull, “a guy is 36 or 37 and they talk about the career winding down. Gordie played 15 more years after that. He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy. A beautiful skater, always in control of the puck, in position, tough, and what a wrist shot. He had it all.
“I played against him, of course, but one day in the summer, we were playing golf in Halifax. We were the first ones out, just after dawn, nice course, no practice balls, just get up and hit it. He shoots 68. And (former Major League manager) Lou Boudreau told me in Chicago he watched Gordie hit baseballs in Tiger Stadium and tried to sign him to a contract with the (Cleveland) Indians.
“So I said: ‘Gordie, you’re the greatest hockey player of all time, you just shot 68 and you could have played major league baseball. It doesn’t seem fair.’ He said, ‘You should see me bowl.’ ”
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