Monday, March 31, 2008

Happy birthday, Mr. Hockey!

Congratulations are in order to Gordie Howe, who turns 80 today. There are some great retrospectives on his career from's John McGourty and Shaun P. Roarke, as well as the Canadian Press (via The Hockey News). Howe was my favorite player growing up, even though I never had the privilege of watching him play. I fell in love with the Howe legend from reading about him, particularly the part about his move to the WHA to play with his sons Mark and Marty after the Red Wings decided he was too old. Mostly because of him, I was a diehard Hartford Whalers fan growing up (and still have a Whalers jersey). As Kevin Allen of USA Today points out, one of the best things about Howe was he could do anything.

"Bobby Orr was the most spectacular hockey player I ever witnessed," he writes. "Wayne Gretzky is the sport's most creative offensive star and Mario Lemieux is probably the most dangerous scorer ever to lace up skates. But as extraordinary as these three players were, Gordie Howe simply had more tools in his box. He was as ruthless as he was cunning, as powerful as he was skilled, and as durable as he was dedicated. He was the NHL's most complete player."

There have been many who have written great things about Howe over the years, but one of the best pieces is from another legend, Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star. I was reading a great collection of his work (appropriately titled "The Best of Milt Dunnell") the other day, and came across a terrific (and strangely prescient) column on Howe's longevity that ran May 10 1963 (17 years before Howe finally hung up the skates in 1980, if you don't count his one-game comeback in 1997 with the IHL's Detroit Vipers to become the only man to play pro hockey in six decades). Here's some excerpts from "He Can't Read the Calendar":

"Away back in the early part of the Fat Fifties, Jack Adams, who was running the Red Wings, used to say: 'You don't have to tell me Howe is great. But you haven't seen anything yet. Wait until Howe is 30,'" Dunnell wrote. "Adams was just like all shinny men — impatient. He couldn't wait for a boy to mature properly. What Adams must have meant was: 'Wait until Howe is 40.' This big switch-shooter, Gordie Howe, is a slow developer. He's 35 already — and you can't even be sure has reached his potential. Wait until he's 50. He'll be holding the Hart trophy in his hamlike hands — sure as CCM makes hockey skates."

Well, Howe didn't quite win the Hart at 50, but he came pretty close. He won the Gary L. Davidson Trophy as the WHA's MVP in 1974 when he was 46 (it was subsequently renamed in his honour), and he led the Houston Aeros to back-to-back championships. He dominated the WHA for most of its existence, played until he was 52, and had a solid final campaign in the NHL, racking up 15 goals and leading the Hartford Whalers into the playoffs. That kind of longevity is amazing, especially given the rough-and-tumble style Howe played. Current Red Wings GM Ken Holland agrees.

"I think Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player of all time, certainly the greatest power forward of all time," Holland told McGourty. "He was the greatest player in the history of this franchise, and I think that he and Steve Yzerman are without a doubt the two greatest players to wear the Red Wings' uniform."

Think about the other great power forwards in the league's history, and how many of them had to retire early or missed significant amounts of time due to injury. Cam Neely, Eric Lindros, Kevin Stevens and Wendel Clark immediately come to mind, and there are undoubtably many more. Howe was absolutely tough-as-nails, and there's a good reason the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" is named after him, even if he only recorded it once.

Also, good for Gordie for using his time in the spotlight to address a great wrong: the case of his son, Mark, who is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame despite an outstanding career. Gordie called Mark's absence from hockey's most famous shrine an injustice when asked about it by a Detroit reporter.

"Check his record,” Howe said. “He wasn't a troublemaker and he did his job. All his coaches told me that he just doesn't get the credit he deserves. He played on teams that were always first or second, and he led the League in plus-minus several times. He beat everybody by about 20 goals and he was a defenseman. I got mad when they put him on defense because I lost my winger."

Mark started out as a forward, but then converted to defense and was a three-time Norris runner-up (and certainly would have won if his best years hadn't conflicted with those of Paul Coffey). He was great at both ends of the ice: in 1985-86, he scored 24 goals, recorded 82 points, led the league in plus-minus with an amazing +85, and also added 7 shorthanded goals. Over his NHL and WHA career (22 years), he put up 405 goals and 1,246 points. He also is the youngest hockey player ever to win an Olympic gold medal. Bill Fleischman of makes an excellent case for Mark's inclusion. As Fleischman points out, one of the main reasons Mark is likely overlooked is because several of his good years came in the WHA. The Hockey Hall of Fame's NHL bias rises to the surface again...

Unfortunately, there are two things in the Howe coverage that are somewhat lacking. Understandably, the NHL doesn't want to talk too much about Howe's WHA days, but it's disappointing that CP barely mentions them. It's also disappointing that there wasn't more coverage of Howe's birthday in the big Canadian papers, other than the CP story (although the Vancouver Province's Ben Kuzma ran a nice Q&A with Howe a few weeks back and the Globe has a cool photo slideshow up today) Props to the NHL for doing a great job with a historic moment for one of their legends, and to American media for picking up on it, but it would have been even better if the Canadian papers had followed their lead: the man defined our national game.

No comments:

Post a Comment