Gordie Howe lived so long that most Americans don't realize his central role in helping the NHL expand, and getting hundreds of thousands of American kids playing hockey, including a dozen members of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Howe was one of nine kids born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sasketchewan – a town so tiny, their post office closed in 1923. During the Great Depression, a neighbor brought over a gunnysack full of used things, including a beat-up pair of skates. Howe's mom gave her a few bucks, and Gordie the skates. "I put those on," Howe recalled, "and I never took 'em off."
Howe was skilled, smart and tough – the most complete player the sport ever produced. He was even ambidextrous, with the ability to switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed shot while barreling down on the goalie. Put it all together, and you get what they called "The Gordie Howe Hat Trick," consisting of a goal, an assist, and a fight, all in the same game.
During Howe's 26-year career, he set records for most goals, most points, most games, most ... almost everything. He finished in the top ten in scoring for 21 straight years, which is impossible.
But his impact was greater than a bunch of records. What Arnold Palmer and Pele did for golf and soccer in America, Gordie Howe did for hockey: He served as his sport's greatest ambassador, the man they called, "Mr. Hockey."
Gordie Howe was the first break-out hockey star in the States, followed by Chicago's Bobby Hull and Boston's Bobby Orr. That trio gave the NHL the boost it needed to double from the "Original Six" to a dozen teams in 1967, on the way to its current total of 30 teams.
In Michigan, Howe inspired just about every town to build an ice rink. The Pittsburgh Penguins just won the Stanley Cup with seven players who played on those rinks, in little league, high school or college.
In 1958, Red Berenson decided to leave his home province of Saskatchewan to attend the University of Michigan. He went for the school, the program, and the chance to see Gordie Howe play, 38 miles away. After a 17-year NHL career, Berenson returned to coach his alma mater in 1984. Among many others, Berenson's program produced Carl Hagelin and Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter, both of whom play for Pittsburgh now. That is the long arm of Gordie Howe.
But what about Howe, the person? Usually it's a mistake to meet your heroes, but not Howe. He remained humble, and always took the time for his fans. As fellow Hall of Famer Bill Gadsby said, "The only guy in the locker room who didn't know Mr. Hockey was Mr. Hockey, was Mr. Hockey."
When Wayne Gretzky was only 11, Howe attended a banquet to celebrate the budding star. But when Gretzky got to the podium, he couldn't speak. Howe rescued him by saying, "When someone has done what this kid has done, he doesn't have to say anything." Gretzky never forgot Howe's graciousness, when he needed it most.
If Gretzky was the alpha, I was the omega: A third-line right-winger for the Ann Arbor Huron High School River Rats. When I was a junior, in November 1980, I was about to hop on a plane to Hartford when I recognized Howe at the counter. I couldn't resist: "Excuse me, but you're Gordie Howe, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am," he said softly, and thanked me for not making a scene. I quietly praised him, then blurted out -- for reasons I still cannot fathom – that my favorite player was his longtime linemate, Alex Delvecchio, an amazing passer who set up hundreds of Howe's goals. When Howe stared at me for what seemed like a month, I concluded that might have been the stupidest thing I'd ever said. But then Howe gave me a wink and a nod, and said, "Mine, too, sonny. Mine, too."
This week we learned Howe generated a few thousand stories like that. Here's another. The Penguins' stable of 12 American players includes defenseman Ian Cole. His father, Doug, plays in a beer league with the rest of us here in Ann Arbor. Doug grew up playing hockey in town, idolizing Howe like everybody else, which sparked a love for the game that he passed on to his son.
When Ian was just 8, his dad took him down to a local rink to meet Gordie Howe. When Ian finally got to the front of the line, he bravely asked the legend, "Mr. Howe, what can I do to be a great player like you?"
Howe said, "Sonny, I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told Wayne Gretzky: You have two ears and one mouth. Keep two open and one shut."
Howe signed Ian's book, ruffled his hair, and said, "Good luck, kid."
Two days after Gordie Howe died, Ian Cole raised the Stanley Cup over his head.
And that was Mr. Hockey.
More By John U. Bacon:
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John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.