The Legacy of Number 9

Donovan Maudsley - 3A Mechanical
Posted on: June 18, 2016

The hockey community lost one of its greats recently. Gordie Howe passed away at the age of 88 at his son’s home in Ohio.  Gordie made a lasting impression on the sports world with his fierce competitiveness and refined how a hockey forward should play. He earned the nickname “Mr. Hockey” over five decades in the NHL and no one will ever contest this. Many, including the Great One himself Wayne Gretzky, consider number 9 to be the best player in the history of the sport. Howe started his professional career in 1946 at age 18 playing for the Detroit Red Wings, and would play with them for 25 seasons. That’s probably longer than you’ve been alive for. Along the way he lead the Wings to winning 4 Stanley Cups, finished in the top 5 scorers in the league in 20 straight seasons, and was the first player ever to record 90 plus points in a season. The Red Wings top line of Gordie Howe-Sid Abel-Ted Lindsay was known as the “production line” because they made points like nobody’s business. In the 49-50 season they finished 1-2-3 in the league in scoring. Another legend, Maurice “The Rocket’ Richard was also fast, skilled, and tough. He was also so good that the league named the scoring title after him. Howe beat him in scoring head to head multiple times. He also knocked him out cold the first time they ever played each other.

Howe played the majority of his career in a low scoring era of the NHL, making his totals even more ridiculous. During the days of the original six all of the available talent went in to the 6 teams. There were really no weak players in the league. Imagine if all the players in today’s NHL made up six teams. The defensive units would be insanely good. The season was also shorter, with teams only playing 60 games. Analytics pros have adjusted and extrapolated Howe’s points totals with the Red Wings to compare with the higher scoring 80s, and his totals pass even Gretzky.

After 25 years in Detroit, Howe began developing a chronic wrist issue, and in 1971 he was forced to retire. Immediately out of the game, Howe was offered the job coaching the brand new New York Islanders, but turned it down for a job in the Red Wings front office. His job began to feel less and less meaningful after about a year, and he made the decision to return to hockey, albeit at a lower level. He had surgery on his wrist to correct his issue and began playing for the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros with his sons Mark and Marty Howe. One of my favourite clips of Howe from this time is him driving an opponent into the boards after that player hit one of his sons.

While still a big time goal scorer, Howe became known more for his aggressive style of play, and specifically his tendency to throw elbows. Despite only completing the feat twice, the act of scoring a goal, marking an assist and getting into a fight became known as the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”. For comparison, another Red Wings legend, Brendan Shannahan, recorded 17 in his career. Fun fact, Shannahan previously served as the league’s director of player safety.

Howe went on to lead the Aeros to two WHA championships before the Howe family moved to the New England Whalers. In 1979, the WHA folded and was absorbed into the NHL.  While the Red Wings still technically held Howe’s contract rights, he was permitted to play for the Hartford Whalers in the 1979-80 season. Gordie was selected that season to play in his 23rd NHL All-Star game, which was coincidentally Gretzky’s first. Gordie had an assist in the third period. Gordie retired again in 1980, and was the oldest and most experienced player in the league. Mr. Hockey’s longevity makes his career even more astonishing. In 1997, at 69 years old, Gordie signed a one day contract with the minor league Detroit Vipers, and played a single shift. This makes him the only player to ever to play professional hockey across six decades.

Howe’s legacy includes more than just stats though. He is remembered as a kind and humble man. Steve Yzerman, Detroit’s 2nd best player ever, said that if you didn’t know who he was you could’ve mistaken him for a staff member at Joe Louis Arena. He and Mrs. Hockey, Coleen Howe, always took the time to talk with everybody and treated everyone very kindly. Howe also helped found what would go on to become the NHL’s Player’s Association during his fight for better pay during the 60s. He is also the only team to have his number individually retired by two different teams, Hartford and Detroit. Although no number 9 banner flies in Carolina, the new location of the Whalers franchise, his number is still technically retired.

Many recognize Gretzky as being the best player ever, but even he acknowledged that Howe was his better. The two were actually very good friends, and Gretzky idolized Gordie from a young age. When he was 11, Gretzky would ask hairdressers to give him the “Gordie Howe cut”. They actually met that year. Gretzky recently recalled one Christmas when he was given a Howe Red Wings jersey that immediately became his most prized possession.