Just as we have the funeral for one of sport’s true icons, we learn we’ve lost another. Gordie Howe, who died today at 88, was one of hockey’s two transcendant figures. The other is Wayne Gretzky. But whereas the Great One was skinny and looked like the next cross-check would snap him in half, if you hit Howe, you knew he would hit back harder, as he proved decade after decade after decade… after decade. (Yes, the word decade needs to be listed four times.)
On the day of Howe’s birth, his mother was chopping wood. She gave birth to him by herself and even cut the umbilical cord.
This was the greatness of Gordie: No one in any sport has so thoroughly beaten time for so long.
In honor of #9, here are nine facts about Mr. Hockey and his truly freakish longevity, toughness and all-around excellence. As Howe himself said: “You’ve got to love what you’re doing. If you love it, you can overcome any handicap or soreness or all the aches and pains, and continue to play for a long, long time.”
1. He Had a Tough Mother.
Born in 1928 in Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe was the sixth of ninth children. On the day of his birth, his mother was chopping wood—you know, as women about to give birth do—when she realized she was going into labor. With her husband not home and no one there to help, she gave birth by herself and even personally cut the umbilical cord.
2. He Experienced Extreme Poverty.
Born during the Great Depression, there was no indoor plumbing in his home, and Howe later recalled doing much of his bathing at school. He made money by hunting gophers with a slingshot, earning a penny a tail.
3. He Should Have Been a New York Ranger.
A New York Rangers scout spotted Howe and brought him to training camp in 1943. What followed was a disaster for all. Having never been outside Saskatchewan, 15-year-old Howe found himself encountering hockey equipment he didn’t even know how to put on and was mocked by the team’s veterans. It proved even more disastrous for the Rangers, who let Howe go and proceeded not to win a Stanley Cup for the next 51 years.
4. He Lost Three Teeth in His First Game.
Which came at age 18 with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946. During that first season, he played 58 games, scored seven goals and had 15 assists. Bigger numbers would follow.
5. He Had a Career’s Worth of Feats by Age 27.
By 1955, he had won four Stanley cups, made six All-Star teams, collected two MVPS and led the league in goals three times, assists three times and points four times. He would not retire, though, until 1980.
6. He Spent 25 Seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.
When Howe played his final game with the Red Wings in 1971, he held the NHL record for most games played (which he still holds) and most goals (he’s now in second place behind Gretzky). Over his career he would overcome hundreds of injuries, including over 300 stiches and head injuries so severe that he later wrote of a 1950 playoff game: “Complications that arose from the swelling in my brain meant that staying alive was a bit touch and go for a while.” But he wasn’t done.
7. He Played Seven Seasons with His Sons.
During the 1970s, the World Hockey Association took on the NHL. They ultimately failed, folding in 1979. Yet they’ll always be remembered for Howe’s seven seasons with sons Mark and Marty, first with the Houston Aeros and later the Hartford Whalers. The Howes won two titles and Gordie collected the MVP award at 46. The next season it was renamed the Gordie Howe Trophy, meaning he was playing in a league in which the MVP trophy literally had his name on it. (His sons were no slouches; both were named WHA All-Stars and Mark made the Hockey Hall of Fame.) Gordie finally retired in 1980 at age 52, having played 32 seasons. If you add in his WHA goals, he has more goals than Gretzky.
8. He Does Not Hold the Record for Gordie Howe Hat Tricks.
The Gordie Howe Hat Trick is when a player has a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Despite having hundreds of goals and assists and at least 22 fights in the NHL, Howe is only known to have achieved three Gordie Howe hat tricks. It’s believed Rick Tocchet is the career leader with 18.
9. He Briefly Made Bart Simpson’s Teacher a Very Happy Woman.
While Gordie was known for his devotion to his wife of 55 years and agent/manager “Mrs. Hockey” Colleen, he was drawn into a flirtation with another fair maiden. In The Simpsons episode “Bart the Lover,” Bart seduces teacher Mrs. Krabappel through a series of irresistible letters that combine the seductive words of a drunken Homer—“Truly, yours is a butt that won’t quit”—and a photo of Howe (who Bart renames “Woodrow”). Since everything involving Howe leads to greatness, “Bart the Lover” brought Krabappel voice actress Marcia Wallace an Emmy.
Finally, here’s a brief but wonderful clip of a grey-haired, helmet-free Howe still destroying other players, particularly those who dare to mess with his sons…
And here’s a longer film of Howe in his true glory days, where it’s noted that while dominating he looked so “relaxed” it was like he was “falling asleep on the ice” and opponents muse about why they called him “Mr. Howe.” So long, Gordie. Lord, get him the puck and get out of the way.