By Stephen Whyno
AP Sports Writer
Gordie Howe helped revolutionize the NHL by sheer force.
He could deliver an elbow as well as he could score. While other hockey greats could skate and put the puck in the net, “Mr. Hockey” could do more than that, Howe, who died Friday at the age of 88, was a physical force as well as an offensive superstar.
“A player like Gordie Howe doesn’t come around very often, a player that plays as well and as long as he did,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson, who played with and against Howe. “He may have been the most well-rounded athletic player that I’ve ever seen.”
Howe broke the NHL scoring record set by Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer Maurice “Rocket” Richard, and his 1,850 points stood up until Wayne Gretzky passed him decades later. While scoring at that pace, Howe racked up 1,685 penalty minutes — more than fellow Hall of Famers Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Marcel Dionne combined.
Shy off the ice, Howe was the opposite when the puck was dropped.
“Obviously, he was anxious to make an impression, and he certainly did in a physical way as well,” longtime NHL executive Bill Torrey said Friday. “Gordie, he was bigger, stronger, could skate faster and he could shoot the puck with either hand — left or right. Gordie Howe was ambidextrous.”
Boasting a unique mix of size and skill allowed Howe to play until the age of 52. He retired in 1971 because of wrist injuries, but returned to play in the World Hockey Association and then once more in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers alongside sons Mark and Marty.
Former Canadiens star Serge Savard said players were all scared of Howe in his prime and that “everyone was happy when he retired.” Howe had the reputation of a player who would never forget a big hit. Along with the scoring record, the 6-foot-tall Howe broke more than a few bones in his time.
“Gordie was bigger than most players, so his elbows were at a level that seemed to make contact with a lot of big noses,” said Torrey, who attended a training camp with Howe in the 1960s.
Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Phil Esposito said Howe gave him six stitches on his nose in one of his first few NHL games. They were great friends ever since.
“Gordie was the greatest all-around player of all-time,” Esposito said. “I saw him play forward and defense, I never saw him play goal, but I’m sure he could have.”
Hall of Fame goaltender Bernier Parent recalled a game in the 1960s when his Boston Bruins faced Howe’s Red Wings at the Olympia in Detroit. Defenseman Gilles Marotte hit Howe through a door in the boards, and the response was swift.
“Three plays later, Gilles went to check Gordie again and Gordie saw him coming and gave Gilles an elbow that broke his jaw,” Parent said.
Despite fighting only a couple dozen times during his 26-year NHL and six-year WHA career, he still became the namesake for the Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Howe only registered a few of them, but the tradition is a testament to his all-around ability.
Howe won the Hart Memorial Trophy as NHL MVP six times, was a 23-time All-Star and led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups.
“He had a great vision of the game, a great scorer, puck control,” Buffalo Sabres great Gilbert Perreault said in a phone interview. “It was hard to get the puck away from him. But what a player. He had great timing with the puck to score a goal.”
Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who faced Howe with the Toronto Maple Leafs for 10 years before joining him as a teammate, said fans just loved to watch him play.
“He played all those years and we packed every house that we came to,” Mahovlich said in 2014. “Boy, you didn’t want to go in the corner with him without your eyes open because you were liable to get an elbow or something. He was a tough guy to play against.”
Howe’s hard-nosed brand of hockey became a model for kids growing up watching the Detroit Red Wings across the United States and Canada.
“So many generations of players wanted to play like Gordie Howe,” former Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke said. “He was the ultimate professional hockey player.”