Gordie Howe Was Unforgettable, Say Those Who Played with and Against Him

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJune 11, 2016

FILE - This is a Nov. 1967, file photo showing Detroit Red Wings hockey player Gordie Howe. Howe, the rough-and-tumble Canadian farm boy whose boundless blend of talent and toughness made him the NHL’s quintessential star during a career that lasted into his 50s, has died. He was 88. (AP Photo/File)
Anonymous/Associated Press

Bruce MacGregor spent 11 seasons playing with Gordie Howe on the Detroit Red Wings. As a second-line winger, MacGregor usually went on the ice right after Mr. Hockey came off.

"But he just never wanted to come off. He wanted to play the whole game. I never saw anyone who loved to play the game more than Gordie did," MacGregor said Friday from his home near Edmonton, Alberta. "We darn near thought he'd play forever."

He darn well almost did, or at least it seemed that way. Howe died Friday at 88, and tributes poured in from around the globe to one of hockey's Mount Rushmore figures. His incredible career spanned from 1946-80, starting in Detroit and ending in Hartford, Conn., as a Whaler. He played one shift for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League at age 69.

In the 1940s and '50s, Howe and Maurice "Rocket" Richard were the NHL's two biggest stars. But while the Rocket retired in 1960, Howe—who joined the league only four years after Richard—just kept on playing. When he retired from the NHL in 1980, at age 52, Howe was the league's all-time leading scorer, with 801 goals and 1,850 points in 1,767 games. He remains second on the all-time scoring list, after the player who idolized him—Wayne Gretzky.

MacGregor said the nickname "Mr. Hockey" was perfect for the native of Floral, Saskatchewan.

Alvin Quinn/Associated Press
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"He was the game's ambassador," said MacGregor, who played with Detroit from 1960-71. "He never, ever refused an autograph. No matter how busy he might have been, he always had time for the kid who wanted him to sign, or even the parking lot attendant who wanted to talk for a second. He was just a very nice man."

But on the ice?

"The personality would change a little," MacGregor said with a laugh.

He was Mr. Hockey to the public, but most opponents knew him as "Mr. Elbows." 

"He was a mean SOB if you crossed him," MacGregor said.

Al Hamilton knows all about it. As a young player with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1970-71 season, Hamilton received a two-handed tomahawk chop to his hand from Howe, for what reason he still doesn't know.

"I must have made him mad somehow, though I don't remember why," Hamilton said. "I think maybe that was his introduction to me in the NHL. It got me on the glove, so it didn't break anything. But it hurt."

Hamilton got to play with Howe in 1974 as part of a World Hockey Association all-star team exhibition against Russian stars. 

"He was a legend by then, of course. He was world-famous. But you would never, ever know it by just being around him. He was just one of the guys," Hamilton said. "For a superstar player, he was just so humble and gracious. He was a gentleman to everyone off the ice. But he didn't take any guff on it; I want to tell you."

Both men say Howe's strength was overpowering. Though he did not do much weightlifting, Howe had a physique resembling a bodybuilder's. He had massive shoulders, thick forearms and thick trapezius muscles that made the area from his ears down to the shoulders look like a ski slope.

"And one thing people forget about Gordie...he was ambidextrous," MacGregor said. "He shot right-handed, but he was just as strong with his left, and he scored a lot of goals that way. He could switch hands on the stick when he needed to and be just as effective."

Gretzky, who wore Howe's No. 9 as a youth player before choosing No. 99 as his professional playing number, saluted his idol and friend on Twitter:

MacGregor agreed.

"He was a great player. But a better man." 

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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