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PITTSBURGH… It has been another up and down week in the Ice Hockey world with the 2016 Stanley Cup being awarded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and then sadly, honoring the life of the great Gordie Howe, aka “Mr. Hockey.” Which is the bigger story? Well, a lot of Stanley Cups have been won over the years but there is only one Gordie Howe. There will never be another player such as Howe. Period. He passed away last Friday at his son Murray’s home in Toledo. He was 88. We almost lost him in 2014 due to a stroke and other mitigating health issues but he made it through and then went to Mexico for stem cell treatments that gave him some temporary improvement in his speech and ability to get around.
He made his mark with the NHL Detroit Red Wings and then the WHA Houston Aeros, coming out of retirement to play with his sons Mark and Marty, and then later the New England Whalers before finishing his career with the Hartford Whalers who had become a part of the NHL after the WHA ceased operations and the NHL assimilated 4 of it’s teams. His list of awards and achievements is too lengthy for me to list here, but I will say this; for many years I was not a huge Howe fan, in fact I was kind of ambivalent toward him. He had the “Mr. Hockey” moniker and so on and I was a Montreal Canadiens guy, I was a Maurice “Rocket” Richard guy. I have an autographed Richard photo in my sports collection.
The Rocket and Gordie had an intense rivalry on the ice. But for Howe, I still had the respect. I saw him play the NorthStars at the old Met Center. (as a Red Wing) And if I have never said it before in print, that building was one of the best hockey venues in the league back in the day, and was well known for the quality of it’s ice sheet. I saw him play in St. Paul at the Civic Center versus the Fighting Saints, as a Houston Aero. And then finally, I saw him one final time as a Hartford Whaler, back in the show after all of those years. When I was in Detroit for the 1979 NCAA Hockey Championships, yes, before the “Frozen Four” name took over, this tourney was at the old Olympia where the Wings played, and touring the building the morning of the semifinal’s I was awed by an entire glassed-in case feting Howe and his storied career. I still have the photo of it.
Over time I came to realize the true greatness of Howe when I started to analyze his career numbers. Howe still ranks as the 2nd all time leading scorer in hockey history based on 1850 points (801 goals, 1049 assists) in 1767 games, (NHL totals) and 508 points (174 goals, 334 assists) in 419 games. (WHA) Add them together and you have 2358 points-975G-1383A in 2186 games. That’s 1.078 points per game and that’s superstar level scoring in any era. So I had to change my outlook on Howe a bit. Rocket will always be my all-time favorite as no player had his flair and style. But Gordie? He was great, damn right he was.
He and Maurice played at a time when there were no five minute a game street thugs on ice on your roster. There was no such thing as an “enforcer” to protect your star players. Your best players also had to be your toughest players and they both could back that up. In fact, as time passed in the league, their number of scraps decreased because no one dared take them on. They had one of the most storied series of battles ever and I would like to think that even if they never became friends off of the ice, that they had an enduring respect for each other. In a bit of a rib to his nemesis, Howe once had a dog he named “Rocket”.
To cover the depth of his contribution to the sport, one would need more space then I can dedicate to him here, but consider this; 4 Stanley Cups, 2 Avco Cups, (WHA) 6 Hart Memorial and Art Ross trophies, 5 time goal scoring leader, 23 All Star appearances (NHL), 2 All Stars (WHA) and numerous other awards and accolades, to many to list. And to top it off, his contributions to the game off of the ice, his demeanor, class, manners and civility to all he came in contact with belied his toughness and take no prisoners game on the ice. In short, he really was the greatest player ever and best ambassador the game has ever seen.
When I heard the news last Friday I kind of surprised myself and became choked up upon hearing the word of his passing. I didn’t think I would react like that. I truly know now how much he meant to the game, and how great he truly was. RIP Mr. Hockey, thank you…
THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS ARE THE 2016 STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS! This team, after a so-so start and a coaching change eventually caught fire and by regular seasons end were in command, going 24-10 from February 1st forward. Like them or not that is fairly impressive. Last year I had GM Jim Rutherford burning in effigy and wasn’t sure what this club needed to do to move forth. I believed they were wasting the best years of two of the games supreme talents in Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin. And I didn’t see another Cup in Crosby’s legacy. What this team needed was a coach who would take over an alpha male role and kick some backside. Enter Mike Sullivan.
The former player and long time assistant coach did just that and changed this clubs fortunes in the process. For the San Jose Sharks, if not for goaltender Martin Jones, this series would have been a four game sweep. They simply could not keep up with the Pens pace of play. Minnesotan Matt Cullen gets another Cup and Wisconsin native Phil Kessel gets his first. Congrats to both! PEACE