Remembering Gordie Howe

It’s almost impossible to measure Gordie Howe’s impact on hockey. The stats can tell some of it – 2,186 major professional games for the Detroit Red Wings, Houston Aeros and New England/Hartford Whalers, 975 goals, 1,383 assists, 2,358 points and 2,084 penalty minutes. Four Stanley Cups. Six times the NHL’s leading scorer, six times the league’s MVP. His pro career began as World War II was ending, and ended the same year as the Miracle on Ice – a span of 35 years and five different decades.

Howe passed away Friday at age 88, leaving an immeasurable legacy on the game.

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Gordie broke into pro hockey shortly after teams were allowed to pass the puck across their own blueline for the first time, and in an era when only six teams comprised the NHL. He led a Detroit Red Wings dynasty through the 1950s, winning four Stanley Cups. He saw the NHL grow in size, then helped give legitimacy to the upstart World Hockey Association and was one of that league’s best players throughout the 1970s, winning two championships and leading a team to the final series a third time.

It was the WHA that brought Gordie Howe through Indianapolis on a regular basis – first as a member of the Aeros, then later with the Whalers. He came out of a brief two-year retirement in 1973 to play alongside his sons Marty and Mark in Houston, and immediately put up a 100-point season at age 45, leading the Aeros to the first of back-to-back Avco World Trophy titles. When he hung up his skates for good in 1980, he was 52.

On the ice, Gordie Howe was tough – one of the game’s greatest scorers, but also someone who brought the physical edge needed to thrive in the six-team NHL. Later in his career, when in the WHA and pushing 50, it wasn’t uncommon for young WHA rookies to try to take a run at the silver-haired guy wearing a big 9 on his sweater – an easy shot at “the old guy.” Gordie Howe would pick himself up up off the ice, but later in the game, at some innocuous moment, that young rookie would be crumpled up in the corner, having learned a lesson about Gordie’s toughness.

Gordie Howe’s legacy with regards to Indy just missed actually calling the Coliseum home. When he burst onto the pro scene in 1945, the Red Wings had two farm clubs – the Omaha Lancers and the Indianapolis Capitals. He played for Omaha, the “AA” affiliate, in his rookie season, and then went straight to Detroit. Several of the key performers who built the Red Wings dynasty of the early 1950s – Terry Sawchuk, Marcel Pronovost, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Vic Stasiuk – matriculated through Indy.

But his legacy as a player would be as a visitor in the WHA in another era – but also in passing the torch to a third. Wayne Gretzky began his career with the Racers, and first wore the famed 99 on his sweater as a pro in Indy. Gretzky wore 9 as a youth player because he idolized Mr. Hockey – but the number was taken when he got to his junior team in Sault Ste. Marie. So, his coach suggested he wear 99, which he brought to the pro game in Indy. Later that season, an 18-year-old Gretzky and 50-year-old Howe skated alongside each other in the WHA All-Star Game, prompting Howe to quip that he was playing with two teenagers, yet “it’s still the oldest line in hockey because of the old goat on right wing.”

Yet, what’s most memorable about Gordie Howe was his advocacy for others. In 2001, in the final game of the season with a playoff berth on the line, Mr. Hockey and the Indianapolis Ice arranged a special moment. Steven Kirkpatrick, who had muscular dystrophy, took a position between the pipes for the Indianapolis Ice for the opening face-off against the Huntsville Tornado. Chris George – who would later play with the Ice – fired a shot into Kirkpatrick’s pads, and the crowd at the Fairgrounds Coliseum stood to honor Kirkpatrick (click the audio link to listen to Jim Mirabello’s broadcast call of the save).

Later that day, Yvan Corbin scored a hat trick to set the CHL record with 75 goals, the Ice won to clinch a playoff spot over Huntsville, and the two teams lined up to shake hands as if it were a playoff series. But it was all overshadowed by Kirkpatrick’s day.

The entire event was arranged by Gordie Howe and his wife, Colleen, who watched while wearing Ice jerseys emblazoned with their familiar number 9, and “Mr. Hockey” and “Mrs. Hockey” on the nameplate. Gordie looked as if he could go out and take a shift, and greeted fans warmly throughout the game, but he worked to give Kirkpatrick the opportunity to play in a game. CHL commissioner Tom Berry and Ice president Brad Beery didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” 

The side of Gordie Howe most saw was the great player, the chiseled figure with a hair never out of place, the tough guy who could score a real hat trick and a “Gordie Howe hat trick” (goal, assist, fighting major) in the same game. The Hall of Famer who also had a Hall of Fame son – Mark Howe was recently inducted as a defenseman. The man who won six championships and played into his 50s. But the other legacy was the way he continued to give back and be a part of the game.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hockey, and thank you for all you have given to the sport. Your legacy will long continue.