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Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockey!





Floral, Saskatchewan, is listed as a ghost town on Wikipedia. A local farmer maintains what is left of the town, which consists of now defunct church and school buildings. Much of the cemetery consists of unmarked graves, and it would surprise many to learn that many of the bodies in said graves bear a famous name. That name is one that is near and dear to all of us who call ourselves hockey fans. For, you see, although no one could have known it at the time, on this very date 88 years ago, the course of the sport of hockey was changed in that tiny, now abandoned village. That was the date that the world welcomed the great Gordie Howe.


I always give my best effort to be open-minded when dealing with things such as player ranking lists. Like anyone else, I have my own opinions, and while it may be generally hard to sway me, I enjoy a good discussion centered around such lists. I can hear out a well-reasoned opinion even if I don't ultimately agree. There are few positions that I consider to be completely unassailable. However, there are only four skaters for which I could really consider any argument as the greatest ever. I would also find it very hard to stomach the idea of any one of those guys being ranked outside of the top four. It should go without saying that Mr. Hockey is one of those four players.


No matter how you slice it, he is among the elite of the elite in the sport of hockey. If you want single-season performance, Gordie Howe is your man. Six times, he was named as the NHL's most valuable player six times and as the WHA's MVP once. He led the NHL in goals five times, assists three times, and points six times. He was named to the NHL's first or second all-star team a whopping 21 times and to the WHA's first all-star team twice. If you want longevity, the sheer number of all-star selections is a good starting point. Then, consider the fact that he played until he was 52 and was still effective right up until the end of his career. The second oldest player in NHL history retired at 48, and Jaromir Jagr, who is now the second-oldest forward in history is still eight years behind Howe. Is toughness important to you? Gordie Howe is still your man. The trifecta of a goal, assist, and a fight is called a "Gordie Howe hat trick." Scarcely has a player ever had such an impact on so many aspects of the sport.


One man who testified to the complete, well-rounded nature of Mr. Hockey's game was a man who could probably fairly be called Howe's biggest rival: Maurice "Rocket" Richard. There were plenty of comparisons between the two. Both played right wing. Both wore jersey number #9. Both were known for their fiery tempers. If those things were not enough to permanently link the two to one another, an altercation during Howe's rookie season left it beyond any doubt. After being shoved by Richard during a game, Howe turned around and knocked the rocket out cold with a single punch. The Stanley Cup finals linker them further, with Howe's Red Wings and Richard's Canadiens squaring off four times in the 1950'sYet, despite the comparisons, the battles between their teams, and that run-in between the two, there was an immense respect. When Richard retired in 1960, he paid tribute to his former rival saying, "Gordie could do everything."


Something that many are unaware of, however, is that Richard, and all of us almost did not get a chance to see what Mr. Hockey was capable of. In the 1950 playoffs, a failed attempt to check Toronto's Ted Kennedy sent Howe head first into the boards.The results were nearly fatal, not only to Howe's career, but to Howe himself. After the impact, he lay motionless on the ice, unconscious and bleeding. His skull was fractured, and surgery was required to relieve the pressure on his brain and save his life. As we now know, it took a lot more than a fractured skull to keep Gordie Howe down: the next season, he won his first scoring title and began to establish himself as -- at the very least -- the greatest player of his era.


In 1971, Mr. Hockey retired, and the hockey world thought it had seen the last of its great superstar. His wrist was in bad enough shape that to continue to play would require surgery, and Howe found retirement preferable. He held nearly every offensive career record there was. There was nothing left to do, right? Wrong. Two years later, Mrs. Hockey, Colleen Howe came up with a plan to allow the Houston Aeros to choose 19-year old Marty Howe and 18-year-old Mark Howe in the WHA's professional draft, and then sign Gordie, allowing her husband to fulfill a lifelong dream of one day playing with his sons. Suddenly, the idea of the surgery seemed worth it, and Gordie returned to the ice. The WHA's MVP award was renamed in his honor, and he captured the trophy in the 1973-74 season.


The trio of Howes would ultimately play together for seven seasons: four with the Aeros, two with the New England Whalers in the WHA, and one final season with the freshly renamed and now NHL member Harftford Whalers. The significance of that one final season in the NHL should not be overlooked. Since the season ended in 1980, it meant that Gordie Howe had played in the NHL for at leas part of each of five separate decades, establishing a legacy that looks untouchable.


Sadly, I do not know how aware Mr. Hockey might be of the significance of this day. I do not know how sharp his memories of his career may now be. I had the privilege of personally corresponding with his son Marty several months ago, and I was sadly given the news that Gordie is unable to retain anything for more than about 30 seconds. The ravages of age, dementia, and a stroke have taken their toll on this once strong and proud man. Nonetheless, today, I wish you a happy birthday, Mr. Hockey. Even if you do not recall all of it, we do. We have not forgotten you or your accomplishments, and neither has the game. We never will.


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Great entry Scott


I saw Gordie play at the Spectrum in Philly in that final season of his career. I don't honestly remember who won or much else about the night, but I'm proud to be able to say I saw him skate. 


A few years ago when the Flyers retired Mark's #2, I was saddened to see the condition he was in at this point in life. Tough to see heroes like that.

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As always, thanks for the kind words, guys.


Sadly, Gordie retired about 3 1/2 years before I was born, so I never got to see him play. I have only YouTube and articles to rely on. Still, I would consider myself remiss if I didn't study up on him. He's one of the game's greats, and I think everyone should be at least somewhat informed on him. It's only fitting.

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