Every Wednesday and Saturday night, Denis Potvin would lie inches from the television so he could watch Gordie Howe play on “Hockey Night in Canada.’’
Like many hockey fans in the ’60s and ’70s — and ’40s and ’50s — Potvin was in awe of Howe’s greatness.
“He was the feared one,” the Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman said. “He was the one that was going to beat you. He was the ultimate go-to-the-net guy, and he could score in so many different ways. And if you made him angry, keep your head up.”
Fishing a mile off the coast of Florida on Friday, Potvin sat on his boat with and pondered the passing of “Mr. Hockey.”
“I’m just contemplating life and thinking how lucky I had it,” Potvin said. “I grew up in French Canada and got to watch Gordie Howe — the English guy — and Jean Beliveau — the French guy … and to many of us, they covered all the cultures and made us want to play this great game.”
Nineteen months after losing Beliveau, the hockey world is mourning the loss of Howe. On the same day another sports giant, Muhammad Ali, was laid to rest, Howe, after years of declining health, died Friday. He was 88.
Hockey erupted in an outpouring of tributes from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano and Lanny McDonald. But just as touching were the scores of statements from such players as the Wild’s Marco Scandella, Jason Zucker and Kurtis Gabriel, who come from a generation that never got to see Howe play for, technically, parts of six decades.
But any hockey fan or player knows Howe’s incredible impact on hockey. Howe retired as the NHL’s leader in goals (801), assists (1,049) and points (1,850). Only Wayne Gretzky has surpassed him in goals and Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr in points.
Howe still is the all-time leader with 1,767 games. That’s what happens when your NHL career spans 26 seasons. And don’t forget, he played in 419 World Hockey Association games, getting an additional 174 goals and 508 points in six WHA seasons.
In all, he played 33 professional seasons and retired, amazingly, at 52 — four years after his third 100-point season in his 40s.
One of a kind
Gretzky, who wore double-9 (99) because Howe was his idol, called him “the greatest hockey player ever.” Hall of Famer Bobby Orr has often said the same thing.
Lou Nanne, who idolized Howe and first met him at age 12 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, said Gretzky, Orr, Howe and Mario Lemieux are in a class by themselves.
“Nobody else is like them,” Nanne said.
Howe, who played in Detroit on the Production Line with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay and also on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich, first retired after 25 seasons in 1971. He won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, six Art Ross Trophies, six Hart Trophies and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But in 1973, Howe came out of retirement to play for the WHA alongside sons Mark and Marty.
He’d play seven more seasons, including a return to the NHL in 1979-80 when the WHA and NHL merged and the New England Whalers became the Hartford Whalers.
“Keep your stick on the ice because that’s where the puck is. Keep your elbows high because that’s where the other guy is,” Howe said.
Potvin played one career game against Howe in Hartford. It was a thrill.
“We had an incident where he took a shot as a righthander, and then he turned his stick over and took another shot lefthanded on the rebound,” Potvin said. “I had no idea he was ambidextrous. It was really cool.
“I remember my first All-Star Game in Chicago, they introduced Gordie and everybody on the Western Conference led by [Stan] Mikita bowed to him as Mr. Hockey, and right there, you understood the reverence from not only his teammates but the guys he played against.”
A real softie
Getting one goal, one assist and one fight in a game has been called the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” even though truth be told, he only achieved the feat twice.
Also, truth be told, “as mean and tough as he was on the ice, he was as nice and soft off the ice,” Nanne said.
Potvin, who once spent every moment on a cruise with Howe and his late wife, Colleen, concurred: “Here’s a man that was feared out on the ice, yet he was such a gentle person off the ice.”
Said Bettman: “Gordie’s toughness as a competitor on the ice was equaled only by his humor and humility away from it. No sport could have hoped for a greater, more beloved ambassador.”
Gordie Howe stories are plentiful, and he was the ultimate storyteller. And, for fans, whether it was shaking his monstrous hand, taking a picture with him as he threw up a mocking elbow or getting his autograph, meeting Howe was always a joy.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher admired and revered Howe. As a child, Fletcher sent Howe a letter. Shortly later, Fletcher received an autographed picture inscribed, “To Chuck.”
“That was a cool catch for an 8-year-old,” Fletcher said.
Nanne said Howe simply loved the sport and what he meant to fans.
“When he first signed, they asked what he wanted, and he asked for a jacket,” Nanne said. “That was his signing bonus. When he started playing, what [Detroit GM] Jack Adams used to do, he knew Gordie was afraid to ask for anything and was just grateful to be in the NHL.
“When he’d walk in to sign a contract, Adams would say, ‘Put down here what you want’ because he knew Gordie would never ask for too much. He was special. He just loved the league and loved the players after. He just wanted to be in the NHL and play hockey.”