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Howe set scoring records

Howe kept going and going and ...
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"Dad's mind-set on the ice was different than most anybody else I've ever met. He can be cruel. I've seen him be vicious. I've seen him hurt people and I used to think, 'Wow, it's like he meant to do it,' " says Mark Howe about Gordie on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe won six MVP's and six scoring titles.
Durability thy name is Gordie Howe. In his tenure as a professional hockey player, he skated right wing through the presidencies of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He outlasted the Energizer bunny, playing for a remarkable 32 years. At 51, when he should have been sipping beer on his front porch, he was still playing a regular shift in the NHL.

Not even more than 300 stitches, damaged knee cartilages, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a dislocated shoulder, an assortment of scalp wounds, a painful ankle injury and a near-brush with death could derail his date with destiny. And to think, growing up he thought he "would have been happy to play just one season."

Competing for as long as Howe did, one is bound to put up incredible numbers. His stats (World Hockey Association and playoff games included): 2,421 games, 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists, 2,589 points and 2,418 penalty minutes. He held NHL records of 801 goals (regular season) and 1,850 points until Wayne Gretzky came long. Besides Howe's endurance, there was the ability and determination that enabled him to win six MVP awards and six scoring championships with the Detroit Red Wings.

Howe had a thick neck, sloping shoulders and exceptionally strong wrists. In his time - since it was such a long time let's narrow it to the decades of the fifties and sixties - he was described by coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker and the ablest puck carrier in the game. The 6-foot, 204-pound Howe also was tough and aggressive, earning the nickname "Mr. Elbows."

"Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe that is calculatingly and primitively savage," Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964. "He is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice." Of his numerous fights, Howe's bout with Lou Fontinato on Feb. 1, 1959 was the most memorable. The Rangers' tough guy suffered a broken nose and his entire face needed considerable repair.

Howe was born on March 31, 1928 in a farm home near Floral, Saskatchewan, the sixth of nine children. While an infant, the family moved 10 miles or so to Saskatoon, where Howe grew up and learned to play hockey. He started skating at four and at nine he was playing in an organized league.

"He was hockey, hockey, hockey all the time, even in July when he used to break shingles off the house practicing shooting both right and left-handed," his mother Catherine said.

He wasn't much of a student, failing the third grade twice. But the quiet kid was a heck of a hockey player. Starting out as a goalie, he moved to defense before settling in at forward. Though big and awkward, he could score.

But at 15, he didn't impress the Rangers at a tryout in Winnipeg. The next year, a Red Wings scout discovered him and sent him to the team's training camp in Windsor, Ontario. Two years later, at 18, Howe was playing in the NHL. On Oct. 16, 1946, in his first game, he scored the first of 975 regular-season goals (WHA included).

In his first three years, Howe seemed more intent on fighting than scoring and managed a total of only 35 goals; he wouldn't get fewer than 20 in a season again until three decades later. After being advised that he would be better served to stop trying to beat up everybody in the league, the ambidextrous shooter scored 35 goals in 1949-50, second in the NHL to Rocket Richard's 43.
Gordie Howe
April 12, 1956: Howe (center) battles in front of the Montreal goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Production Line of left wing Ted Lindsay, center Sid Abel and Howe finished 1-2-3 in scoring.

On March 28, 1950, in the opening game of the playoffs, Howe's career, to say nothing of his life, almost ended. Toronto's Ted Kennedy avoided a check by a charging Howe, who skidded headfirst into the boards. Rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and severe brain damage, he was placed on the critical list. By relieving the pressure on his brain, surgeons saved Howe. However, the injury left him with a facial tic, and his teammates would call him "Blinky."

After Detroit won the seventh game of the Stanley Cup in double overtime, the fans in Olympia Stadium chanted, "We want Howe! We want Howe!" until Gordie, wearing street clothes, went to center ice. Lindsay pulled off Howe's hat, revealing a bald spot where he was shaved for his operation, and threw it into the crowd. Howe was fully recovered by the next season and with 86 points, an astounding 20 more than runner-up Richard, won the first of four consecutive Art Ross trophies as scoring champion. He also won the first of five goal-scoring titles with 43, one more than "The Rocket."

His 1951-52 MVP season was even sweeter. After leading the NHL in scoring (86 points) and goals (47), he led Detroit to an 8-0 record in the playoffs in its sweep to the Stanley Cup.

In 1952-53, Howe became the first player to score at least 90 points, notching 95, with a career-high 49 goals. The Red Wings, who were upset by Boston in the first round of the playoffs that season, rebounded by winning the Cup in 1954 and 1955, giving them four championships in six years. But it was Howe's last Stanley Cup. That 1954-55 season also marked the end of Detroit's streak of seven straight first-place finishes.

Gordie Howe
Oct. 11, 1963: Howe collects the Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy for the 1961-62 season.
Howe, though, would continue to dominate in this six-team, 70-game era. He became the NHL's career scoring leader in 1960 when he passed Richard's 946 points on Jan. 16, 1960. In 1962-63, Howe won his sixth MVP and scoring championship (86 points). On Nov. 10, 1963, he became the league's all-time leading goal scorer with 545, passing Richard again.

In 1968-69, in the second year of expansion, Howe achieved his first 100-point season. On the day before his 41st birthday, he scored four points in the season finale to give him 103.

Two years later, after his 25th season with Detroit, he retired with 786 goals, 1,023 assists and 1,809 points - all NHL records. The Red Wings named him a vice-president.

But after two unfilled years as an underutilized executive, Howe was presented a golden opportunity in his golden years: To play with his two sons. The Houston Aeros of the WHA signed him, Mark and Marty. It was the thrill of a lifetime.

"If I failed badly," Howe said, "people would remember me more for trying to make a stupid comeback at 45 than for all the other things I did in hockey."

Though a stride slower, there was no failure. Howe won the MVP award and fathered the Rookie of the Year (Mark, left wing on Dad's line). The three Howes led Houston to WHA championships in 1974 and 1975.
Gordie Howe
Howe ended his 32-year career with the Hartford Whalers.
A graying Gordie scored 100, 99 and 102 points in his first three WHA seasons. "Playing with my kids made it fun," he said.

When Houston exited from the WHA in 1977, the three Howes moved north, and joined the New England Whalers. Two years later, the WHA was out of business. The Whalers entered the NHL in 1979 with Gordie and Mark, but not Marty, who was sent to the minors.

Playing all 80 games - at about the same 204 pounds he weighed three decades earlier - Howe had 15 goals and 41 points for Hartford. Soon after his 52nd birthday, the Hall of Fame wing retired for good.

Gretzky broke his scoring records, but that endurance mark looks like a keeper.

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