Gordie Howe named SportsCentury athlete No. 21

He just kept going and going and ...
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

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.

 Gordie Howe
Besides being known for mayhem, Gordie Howe won six MVPs and six scoring championships while with the Red Wings.
He outlasted the Energizer bunny, playing for a remarkable 32 years. At the age of 51, when he should have been sipping beer on his front porch, he was still skating a regular shift in the NHL.

Not even more than 300 stitches, damaged knee cartilage, 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."

By playing as long as Howe did, one is bound to put up incredible numbers. His stats (World Hockey Association included), counting the playoffs: In 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 only) and 1,850 points until Wayne Gretzky came long.

And besides the endurance, there was the ability and determination that enabled Howe to win six MVPs 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 '50s and '60s -- he was described by coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best play-maker and the ablest puck-carrier in the game. The 6-foot, 204-pounder was also tough and aggressive.

But he took the latter qualities a step further in his drive never to be beaten. He was known to be vicious and mean, a punishing artist with a stick that was used for more than scoring goals. And he didn't get the nickname "Mr. Elbows" from opponents for nothing.

Howe was born 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 age 4, and when he was 9 he started 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 Katherine said.

He wasn't much of a student, failing the third grade twice. But the quiet kid was a heck of a hockey player. He started out as a goalie, moved to defense and then settled in at forward.

Though he was big and awkward, he could score. At 15, he attended the Rangers' tryout camp in Winnipeg, but it didn't work out. The next year, a Red Wings scout discovered him and sent him to the team's training camp in Windsor, Ontario. Two seasons later, at the age of 18, Howe was playing in the NHL. On Oct. 16, 1946, in his first game, Howe scored the first of 975 regular-season goals.

In his first three years, seemingly more intent on fighting than scoring, Howe managed a total of just 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, the ambidextrous shooter scored 35 goals in 1949-50, second in the NHL to Rocket Richard's 43. The Production Line of left wing Ted Lindsay, center Sid Abel and Howe finished 1-2-3 in scoring.

In the opening game of the playoffs that season, Howe's career, to say nothing of his life, almost ended. Toronto's Ted Kennedy, concerned he was about to be boarded by a charging Howe, lifted his stick, catching Howe in the eye and cutting his eyeball. Howe skidded headfirst into the boards. Rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull and severe brain damage, he was placed on the critical list. Surgeons saved him, relieving the pressure on his brain. 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 Howe, wearing street clothes and a hat, went to center ice. Lindsay pulled off Howe's hat, revealing a bald spot where he had been shaved for his operation, and threw it into the crowd.

Howe was fully recovered by next season. After scoring 86 points, an astounding 20 more than runner-up Richard, he 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.

The 1951-52 season was even sweeter as it was a complete sweep for Howe, who won the MVP while leading the NHL in scoring (86 points) and goals (47). He also 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 that 1954-55 season marked the end of Detroit's streak of seven straight first-place finishes. And Howe celebrated his final Stanley Cup that year, too.

He did continue to dominate offensively in the six-team, 70-game era. He became the NHL's career scoring leader in 1960 when he passed Richard's 965 points. In 1962-63, he won his sixth MVP and scoring championship (86 points).

Six years later, Howe achieved his first 100-point season. In the second year of expansion, on the day before his 41st birthday, he scored four points in the season-finale on March 30, 1969, giving him 103 points.

Two years later, after his 25th season with Detroit, he retired as a player with 786 goals, 1,023 assists and 1,809 points -- all NHL records. The Red Wings named him as a team 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 for the 45-year-old father.

"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 and son Mark, who was left wing on his dad's line, was named Rookie of the Year. The three Howes led Houston to WHA championships in 1974 and 1975. 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 the WHA in 1977, the three Howes moved north, to play for 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 some 30 years earlier -- Gordie scored 15 goals and had 41 points. Soon after his 52nd birthday, the Hall of Fame wing retired.

Last season, in somewhat of a publicity stunt, Howe played a shift for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League. It enabled him to become the only man to play pro hockey in his 60s.