Best Performance By Old Athletes: Gordie Howe Skates Into History... Again

Tim SchunemanContributor IMarch 31, 2009

17 Jan 1997:  All-time record setter Gordie Howe enjoys the acclaim of the crowd during  practice with the Heroes of Hockey  team at the San Jose Arena in San Jose, California.  Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport

'Nifty' Rick Middleton had close to 100 points, Craig McTavish would still never wear a helmet, and a young Ray Bourque began to make a name as an elite scoring defense-man. 

In an ironic twist what I remember the most from the Bruins 1979 season was not a feat that they accomplished, but rather one by a member of our not yet rival Hartford Whalers. 

That season Gordie Howe played 80 games for the Whale at 51-years-old. 51! Howe scored 15 goals and totaled 46 points, not impressive by many standards at the time, but to do so at the age of 51 in the NHL, the toughest league in the toughest get my drift.

Howe was an image from my hockey books, a player more often than not captured in black and white wearing the flying spokes of the Detroit Red Wings and the N0. 9 jersey (retired now yet immortalized again by Cameron Frye in Ferris Beuller's Day Off), 1851 points, six MVP awards, and his name on four Stanley Cups, Howe is arguably the greatest (sorry, Wayne!) hockey player of all time. 

At 51 most men are planning their retirement, planning their life once their kids leave the house, or buying a Corvette convertible and driving to Vegas. Gordie Howe was playing in the same league as his sons, Mark and Marty, at the same time that a 19-year-old kid named Gretzky was beginning his career. 

Imagine Joe Namath playing a full season in the NFL at 51-years-old. Picture Walter Payton running through the line at 51. Can't? That is because the idea is insane. 

The amount of pounding that a body takes in a contact sport such as football or hockey makes the length of a career limited. Take looks at how many golfers are successful in their 50's and then look at how many players in any other major sport last that long.  Tiger Woods may well win the Masters at 51 but Tom Brady will not win another Super Bowl at that age. 

The skill sets decline and the body simply cannot take the pounding that it gets on a daily and weekly basis. I watched Cam Neely battle a hip problem in his career and it hobbled him. Throw in a fractured skull early in Howe’s career and an era in which bear-knuckle fighting (old-time hockey!) was much more common than today, and the fact that Howe made it to 51 is a miracle, let alone play a full NHL schedule.

Gordie Howe was not the NHL MVP in 1979, he was not even the MVP of the Hartford Whalers, but his age makes this season one of the most significant in sports. Few players in contact sports play into their 40's let alone their 50's, and rarely at the pro level. To stay in that kind of shape and play in the NHL is a feat that is one of a kind and one that may never be done again.