Other than a few handshakes and some casual conversations, I did not have the pleasure of knowing Gordie Howe, who passed away today at the age of 88.
I did, however, get to know Mr. Hockey’s fighting spirit through many conversations with his son, Hall of Famer Mark Howe.
As a young hockey fan, I saw Gordie Howe play in his final NHL season, when he scored 15 goals and added 26 assists in 80 games with the Hartford Whalers at the age of 52.
Back then, I remember Howe being slow, helmetless and gray and I was amazed at the amount of respect he was given on the ice, where no one would come within five feet to hit him.
I couldn’t help but think of the irony in that, since Howe played hockey the way it was meant to be played -- fast, hard and with incredible passion.
The sixth of nine children, Howe grew up in Floral, Saskatchewan in a house with no running water. He showered at school, often ate oatmeal three times a day, and dropped out of high school to work in a metal factory.
The Detroit Red Wings signed him at 16 years old and he went on to play 26 NHL seasons with the Red Wings and Hartford Whalers, recording 801 goals and 1,850 points in 1,767 regular-season games and winning the Stanley Cup four times. He ranks second behind Wayne Gretzky in career goals and fourth behind Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr in career points.
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Howe also finished with 1,685 penalty minutes, but according to a 2008 story written by Jeff Marek on CBCsports.ca, Howe recorded just 22 fighting majors in his career and had just two occasions when he recorded a fight, a goal and an assist in the same game, an event that would eventually be known as a Gordie Howe Hat Trick.
Rick Tocchet (18) and Brendan Shanahan (17) are reportedly the NHL’s all-time leaders in Gordie Howe Hat Tricks, with Dale Hunter leading all Capitals with six, according to hockeysfuture.com.
Howe was a fearless competitor on the ice, taking on some of the toughest fighters of his era – Toronto’s Bill Ezinicki, Boston’s Fernie Flaman, and New York’s Lou Fontinato. He also fought twice in NHL All-Star Games 20 years apart -- in 1948 and 1968.
He reportedly suffered dozens of broken bones and more than 500 stitches during his 26 seasons, all without a helmet.
Howe retired briefly in 1971, but after being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame the following year, he returned to the ice in 1973 to play alongside two of his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Houston Aeros of World Hockey Association.
Howe played four seasons with the Aeros, two more with the New England Whalers and one final NHL season with the expansion Hartford Whalers at the age of 52.
Howe often said playing professional hockey with two of his sons was his greatest joy in hockey. The feeling was mutual.
The bond between Gordie Howe and his son, Mark, grew more and more evident in the 28 years I’ve known Mark, first as a player and then as a pro scout for the Red Wings.
It was in 2011, shortly after his own Hall of Fame induction, that Mark Howe shared with me the joy and frustration of having his father, who was 83 at the time and suffering from cognitive impairment and short-term memory loss, join him in Toronto for the induction.
Mark Howe said his father seemed thrilled to reconnect with old friends and fellow Hall of Famers the night of the induction ceremonies but by the following morning he had little recollection of the night’s events or why they were in Toronto.
As Howe’s condition grew worse over the next three years, Mark would often share the pain of seeing his father’s health deteriorate and his ability to communicate diminish.
Howe suffered two strokes late in 2014 and several family members believed it was only a matter of time before they lost their father.
“You can see in his eyes he wants to communicate and he has a strong will to live,” Mark Howe said at the time. “But he’s trapped inside his body.”
It was then that Mark Howe told me about how the family had been approached by the chief executive officer and vice chairman of Stemedica, a San Diego-based biopharmaceutical company that had conducted stem-cell research for more than 10 years.
The Howe family was told Stemedica would provide stem-cell treatment for their father free of charge, but he would need to be transported to Mexico to receive the treatments.
On Dec. 8 and 9, 2014 in Tijuana, Gordie Howe had neural stem cells injected into his spinal canal and received other stem cells intravenously and within eight hours of the second infusion he began talking and walking to the bathroom.
Within weeks Gordie Howe was able to throw a football with his grandchildren and flip hockey pucks to his sons. Most importantly, Mark Howe said, he was able to restore the dignity he deserved for the final 18 months of his life.
Howe is survived by his four children, Marty, Mark, Cathy and Murray, and nine grandchildren.