While it can sometimes be forgotten these days that the Carolina Hurricanes were once the Hartford Whalers, it isn’t lost on those that suited up for “The Whale” during their glory days in Connecticut. So, it was no surprise that Hurricanes GM and former Whalers forward Ron Francis paid his public respect to the Howe family on the day that Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, passed away at 88 years old.
The Hall of Fame legend is best known for his days winning Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, of course, but Howe also played for the WHA’s New England Whalers for two years, and then one season for the Hartford Whalers in the NHL in 1979-80. Howe turned an amazing 52 years of old that season with the Whalers, and posted 15 goals and 41 points in 80 games, playing with sons Mark and Marty, in his final full season of professional hockey.
“Gordie Howe was a true legend in every sense of the word, and we are proud that he and his sons are a part of our organization’s history,” said Francis in a released statement. “I was lucky to have the opportunity to take the ice with him during my time in Hartford, and his impact on our sport is immeasurable.
“The Carolina Hurricanes organization sends its deepest condolences to the Howe family and everyone affected by his loss.”
Gordie Howe played three seasons with the Whalers in the World Hockey Association (WHA) and the NHL from the 1977-78 season through 1979-80. He totaled 180 points (68 goals, 112 assists) and 178 penalty minutes for Hartford, and never played a full season of professional hockey again after that final season in 1979-80.
Howe won six Hart Trophies in his legendary NHL career, has four Stanley Cups while with Detroit, still holds the NHL record with an amazing 23 All-Star Game appearances, and is the only player to ever suit up for at least one professional hockey game in six different decades from the 1940s through the 1990s. Wayne Gretzky eventually broke Howe’s records for goals, assists and points in his amazing career, but Howe still holds the NHL record in two categories that will likely never be broken: most games played (2.421) and most games played (1,687) with the same team.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman paid tribute to Howe’s legacy with a lengthy statement on Friday and there’s little doubt the NHL will produce a moving tribute to Mr. Hockey prior to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in San Jose on Sunday night.
“All hockey fans grieve the loss of the incomparable Gordie Howe. A remarkable athlete whose mastery of our sport was reflected by the longevity of his career and by his nickname, ‘Mr. Hockey,’ Gordie’s commitment to winning was matched only by his commitment to his teammates, to his friends, to the Red Wings, to the city of Detroit and – above all – to his family,” said Bettman in a prepared statement. “His devotion to Colleen through her illness and the fact that he extended his playing days into a fifth decade so he could play with his sons are only two examples of that true priority in his life. Gordie’s greatness travels far beyond mere statistics; it echoes in the words of veneration spoken by countless players who joined him in the Hockey Hall of Fame and considered him their hero.
"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. On behalf of the generations who were thrilled by his play and those who only know of his legend, and on behalf of all the young people and teammates he inspired, we send heartfelt wishes of condolence, comfort and strength to the Howe family and to all who mourn the passing of this treasured icon of our game.”
On a personal note, this humble hockey writer was far too young to remember anything of Howe’s career firsthand except for images of his final NHL season, and watching on TV as he suited up for the Whalers as a 50 plus year old man. He seemed more like a grandfather than a professional hockey player to me at six years old, but even then he could still play the game at a high level when the puck was dropped.
It was still stunning for anybody that loved hockey to see Howe out and about in NHL circles over the past 15 years as his health began to fail him. Just walking past him on the event floor of the Bell Centre at the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal is one of the highlights of my career and something that immediately prompted me to call my dad about how cool it was to see Mr. Hockey in person.
While Howe might his finally passed, his legacy, from Gordie Howe hat tricks, to Mr. Hockey and to the generosity he showed as an ambassador to the game, will live on forever.