Gordie Howe passed away this morning, surrounded by family at his son’s home. He was a Hall of Famer and four-times Stanley Cup champion who dominated the record book over the course of a 32-year career, and he was known as Mr Hockey because nobody else could have been.
Howe’s death doesn’t come as a shock – he’d been battling serious health problems for several years – and over the next few days, you’re going to see a flood of tributes to him from around the sports world. Some of those will be written by those who watched him play, and others by those who were lucky enough to have known him. They’ll be touching and heart-felt, and I encourage you to read every one of them.
I’m young enough that I never saw Howe play. Even his later years, when he was putting up 41 points for the Whalers as a 51-year-old, were before my time. And yet Howe was one of the most important players of my lifetime; he did as much to shape my identity as a hockey fan as any player I could name. Howe was hockey. He was the archetype of what a hockey player should be.
That wasn’t because of his scoring records, which were stunning at the time but have almost all long since been broken. It’s not about his unmatched longevity, amazing as that was, or about his dominance in his prime, although there’s no question that he was the best player in the sport for long stretches.
Hockey’s always been a strange game, and to a new fan, it can feel like two different sports are being played at once. There are the element of speed and skill that show themselves throughout the game in ways both big and small; the way that some players can almost effortlessly do things on ice that, if you stop and think about it, should really be impossible. And there’s also the violence, the fury of collisions and elbows and sometimes fists. Not everyone appreciates that side of the game, and it’s been fading from the sport in recent years, but it’s still there in some form and always will be.
Those two halves of the game shouldn’t be able to co-exist, but they do, often on the same shift. At its best, hockey can be a work of art that leaves blood and teeth all over the canvas. And that’s why Gordie Howe always seemed to matter so much, why he was at the very core of what the sport was. Nobody ever combined both halves of the game the way he did.
Howe won the NHL’s scoring title six times, as well as six MVP honors, both marks that stood until Wayne Gretzky arrived. He was also a 23-time All-Star, which seems like it must be a typo. Nobody will touch that mark, and is speaks to Howe’s legacy of being so good for so long.
But the secret to Howe’s success was that his skill was tied to a legendary mean streak. Before he ascended to Mr Hockey status, he had another nickname: Mr Elbows. If you’re wondering where he got it, well, ask anyone who ever went into a corner with him. Be patient waiting for an answer; there’s a decent chance their jaw is still wired shut.