When I finally catch up with Doc and the DeLorean, there are a few places I am going.
I am going to watch Bob Gibson act like a wizard on the pitching mound at Busch Stadium in 1968.
I am going to watch Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight like warriors in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975.
I am also going back in time to watch Gordie Howe play hockey.
“Mr. Hockey” finally gave out Friday at the age of 88 years young. He went peacefully and surrounded by his loved ones. This world was no longer fit for his presence. Howe, a legend for the Detroit Red Wings and owner of four Stanley Cups and the gusto of a war ship, is someone every hockey fan should know about and understand.
He wasn’t just a great hockey player. He was the toughest guy on the ice. He could kick your ass, score three goals, and get the last laugh. There’s a reason hockey announcers these days call a Gordie Howe Hat Trick(a goal, assist, and fight) the secret jewel every hockey player should receive. Even Vladimir Tarasenko accomplished it in November of 2014. Howe did it all and looked better than most doing it. There was little the man couldn’t do but live forever. His legend will live on for centuries.
Howe played for the Red Wings from 1946 until 1971, something you just don’t see these days. You don’t see a hockey player spend two decades with one team. Free agency and the allure of money along with a heavy dose of ego cause a player to run away after a decade or less. Howe stayed put until the very end of his career where he finished in Hartford.
He was a 21 time All Star and won the Hart Trophy six times while finishing in the top 10 in the voting 19 times. He scored 801 goals and assisted on 1,039 others. Over a course of 1,767 games, Howe shut the puck 1,141 times. He was truly one of a kind.
When he retired, a handful of hockey records belonged to him. A man named Wayne Gretzky, who idolized Howe growing up, came along and broke most of them. Players like Gretzky and Howe only come along once every 25-30 years. Both were legendary. Howe was just more fun to watch, and it wasn’t just because he could probably make Gretzky’s head bleed(I couldn’t pass up a Swingers reference there).
Howe was a guy you could watch score more than the other team, knock their biggest guy out, and sit down for a beer with after the game. He wasn’t a diva or a showman like so many players today. He wasn’t guarded or shy. Howe was a man’s man and someone you wanted to watch play the game the way it was meant to be. 200 feet, hard nosed, and full of true grit and anger.
Howe passed away less than a week after boxing legend Ali died. Two legends whom fans will never see an equal in their lifetime. They each led by what they did on the ice and influenced generations of young athletes to try a different kind of sport. Something hard yet rewarding.
Instead of asking for enforcers to clear space for him on the ice like several current stars, Howe created his own.
“If you play a little rough, you get respect. And with respect you get just a little bit more space on the ice.”-Howe
Howe played for the Red Wings, a sworn enemy of the St. Louis Blues for decades and one that saw some late career success off St. Louis, scoring his 800th goal off the Note. Still, it’s hard to not respect the man even if he did throw a few goals past your team. He was the one of the few hockey players who transcended the game no matter where he went.
He played a few seasons in the WHA and one game in the IHL in 1997 but it’s hard to enter Joe Louis Arena without seeing the remnants of Howe’s golden days. He was Canadian but the way he played hockey made some think he was from another planet.
What did Howe do for a living? Picture a man streaking down the wing without a helmet on with a smile on his face. It’s almost as if his skates didn’t have to touch the ice. He flies past your defensemen and fires a seamless shot on net that finds the back of the goal.Arms are raised, opponents heads drop, and the crowd goes crazy. Howe did that over 800 times. When play opens in October, Howe still ranks 4th on the all time goals list.
As it did with Ali in his final years and several other athletes, the game took a toll on Howe in the final decade of his life. He suffered multiple strokes along with dementia and chronic back pain riddled his final years with many tough stretches. Long after he hung up the skates, Howe had to fight his way through a different game. He had to play a few more periods off the ice.
I never got to watch Howe play so I can’t truly tell you how it felt to watch greatness before my eyes. When a legend like Howe or Ali dies that made his dent before your birth, all one can do is watch video, look at pictures, and rely on the words of others who did see him play. Or you just listen to the man himself.