When I think of best performances by an old athlete, I find myself drawn to one name.
When I first started watching hockey the announcers at the time were letting me know that Gordie Howe was in the twilight of his career.
The year was 1970.
The year before, at 40 years of age, he had finished third in the scoring race with 44 goals and 103 points.
At the start of the decade, Rocket Richard was pushed into retirement in Montreal after 18 years in the league. Now in 1970, after 24 years, people were saying it was time for Gordie to hang them up.
Gordie had only managed 31 goals and 71 points in 76 games for Detroit this year. This meant that year Bobby Orr won the Art Ross trophy. Gordie was only the ninth-leading scorer in the league. Obviously, he was a has-been. He beat another Hall of Famer, Frank Mahovlich, by a point to lead his team in scoring.
The Habs and the Leafs both missed the playoffs that year, for the first time in NHL history, and so we in Canada got to watch playoff hockey in buildings we never got to see on CBC. Detroit played the Blackhawks in the first round, and despite the raucous Joe Louis Arena crowds, were swept.
That was, as the announcers again told me, the end for Gordie Howe. He came back the next year for a farewell tour. It was his 25th year playing a collision sport. I heard more stories about his arthritis that year then I care to remember.
This boy who had broken into the NHL at age 17 was playing his last season in the NHL. He was 42 and his team, the storied Red Wings, finished last in the East behind the expansion Vancouver Canucks.
It did seem like the end of an era. He held every career record worth having in the NHL when he retired. He still holds the record for most games played. He had 52 points in 63 games that last year but he suddenly wasn't the greatest player in the league,wasn't the tenth greatest player.
At age 42 his career was over. I bought a poster that year with a fuzzy Gordie Howe on it and all his final career stats.
Suddenly, along came the WHA. They needed players desperately and they needed name recognition. They signed guys—Bobby Hull, JC Tremblay, Derek Sanderson, and Gordie Howe—who had been retired for years, but suddenly didn't look so old.
I lost track of him then and no one thought of the WHA as a real league, but still Gordie went out and played professional hockey. He played four years in Houston, averaged 71 games a year, and had 30 goals and a 100 points three of those years. He won two Avco cups with them and lost to Bobby Hull and Winnipeg in his third year.
He won the league's MVP award in 1974. Then he and his two sons Marty and Mark moved from Houston to play for the New England Whalers. This was an additional six years of professional hockey out of a man who was too arthritic to be playing the game in 1971.
Nine years after his last year in Detroit, Gordie Howe returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers. He was 51 years old and he played 80 games in the best professional hockey league in the world. He got 15 goals and 26 assists at age 51. He played in the playoffs that year (it was 1980, so practically everyone made the playoffs), getting a goal and an assist in a three game series.
This is an astonishing accomplishment for any athlete, but in a collision sport it is unheard of. Any man who can play 80 games in the NHL at age 51 deserves all the praise you can heap on him.It's the best performance I can imagine by an old athlete.
I still have my old fuzzy Gordie Howe poster with the out of date "final" statistics on it: 1687 games played, 786 goals, 1025 assists, 1809 points. I was going to replace it, but I'm afraid he's coming back.