that week: if he were a forest, he’d be a national park


“There will never be another Gordie Howe,” is what Bobby Orr was saying last week, in the days following Howe’s death on June 10 at the age of 88.

“You couldn’t invent Gordie today,” Orr told Dave Stubbs from “If he was playing with today’s rules he might not be able to do anything at first. But he would adapt to the rules and guys wouldn’t take liberties with him. The way he played, he’d do real well.”

“He was everything to me,” Wayne Gretzky told

Adam Gopnik wrote a Howe tribute for The New Yorker. “Perhaps only Mark Messier, among players bright in our contemporary memory, combined the same qualities of grit, skill, desire, and accuracy,” he mused. “As Gretzky lived on the edge of his skates, Howe lived in his wrists: the accuracy, power, and quickness of his shot are the first things those who saw him up close, in his prime, often reference (after they reference the elbows that rose above those wrists).”

“My best Christmas ever, I was five years old and my dad — I mean Santa Claus — bought me a Gordie Howe sweater, which I wore for the whole year.” That’s Gretzky again, back in 1994. The same article, from Reuters, goes on to say that when young Wayne pleaded with his father, “a barber,” to cut his hair Gordiewise, Walter Gretzky had to explain that Wayne had too much hair and Gordie too little.

“His elbows were the best,” Joe Peacock wrote in 1997.

Gretzky, last week, helped to clarify that old Reuters story: “I was seven or eight years old and I’d go to the barber shop … and I’d say, ‘I want a Gordie Howe haircut.’ I was enamored by him at a young age.”

Eddie McCabe, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, circa 1979, said this: “Gordie is such a decent man, he makes up for the yahoos and the boors.”

Frank Selke said there was no-one better. “Gordie Howe is the greatest all-round hockey player I’ve ever seen,” he opined in 1961 when Selke was managing director of the Montreal Canadiens. “He’s a composite of some mighty fine players through the years, and I’ve been watching them all, amateur and professional, since the 1910s around my old hometown, Kitchener. I’ve never known any player combining so many faculties. He’s the greatest of them all.”

Gordie’s dad didn’t necessarily agree. Gordie wrote about this in his “authorized autobiography,” and … Howe! (1995):

According to my Dad, Vic was always the better player, better than me. He was so funny. And Vern, my oldest brother, was the best of us all, so Dad said. It wasn’t until Dad was old, on his death bed, that he finally gave me more credit. He was kidding me, and said, “Aw, I saw a few gams on television. I guess you were better than your brothers.”

“In street clothes, he looks quite slim, an impression heightened by his long arms, rather long neck and narrow face.” This is Peter Gzowski, from a famous Maclean’s profile of Howe from 1963. “His most outstanding physical characteristic is the slope of his shoulders; his trapezius muscles — the muscle you feel if you stretch your arm out to one side — rise into his neck at an angle not far from 45 degrees, while his deltoids, at the top of the arm, look scarcely better developed than the average dentist’s. The enormous strength he displays in hockey flows from him, rather than exploding, and the easy grace with which he moves on the ice, and which has given so many hockey fans pleasure over the years, is also evident in his loose, almost lazy walk.”

“He’s always at the outer edge of the rulebook,” Eric Nesterenko told Gzowski. “You never know when he’s going to slip over into what’s dirty.”

Howe’s longtime linemate concurred. “Gordie gets away with more than anyone else in hockey,” said Ted Lindsay. Andy Bathgate of the New York Ranger indicted Howe for “deliberately inflicting head cuts, of deliberately cauliflowering at least one ear, and of deliberately raising the puck at other people’s heads.” He did not spear, Bathgate said, nor butt-end. Gzowski: “He is a recognized master of ‘high sticking,’ an action that is almost impossible for the fans or even the referees to separate from an accident, and which has carved his signature on a good many faces around the league.”

Gary Ross wrote about Howe in 1978, the year Number 9 turned 50 playing for the New England Whalers, “If Gordie Howe were a building, he’d be sandblasted and declared an historic site. If he were a forest, he’d be made a national park. In an age of $100,000 flakes he’s the real thing. A hero, a wonder, a natural phenomenon.”

When a 45-year-old Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with sons Mark and Marty for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who told him to go for it. “I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you’d find similar musculature,” Dr. Bailey said. “It’s a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That’s almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80.”

Herbert Warren Wind was first to profile Howe for the pages of Sports Illustrated. “When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone,” he wrote in 1955, “doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot. Also invisible is Howe’s great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete’s forearm.”

Mark Howe, in his 2013 memoir Gordie Howe’s Son: A Hall of Fame Life in the Shadow of Mr. Hockey: “He always regretted dropping out of school and felt that somebody from the hockey club should have stopped him. I think that’s why he took up crossword puzzles — a big-time passion of his — to improve his vocabulary.”

“His success is due in part to the fact that he has the ‘perfect body for hockey,’” Larry Bortstein was able to disclose in 1970. “His shoulders slope so sharply into his huge biceps, which flare out into huge forearms, wrists, and hands. His legs are very strong. ‘I conserve them by sitting down at places where I don’t have to stand,’ he says.”

“When Howe is on the ice,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1964, “Detroit’s Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable.”

King Clancy was the one who suggested someone ought to bottle the man’s sweat: “It would make a great liniment for hockey players.”


“There were many players who believed that Howe was the dirtiest player in the NHL,” Gerald Eskenazi wrote in The New York Times last week. “But by no stretch of the imagination was he a goon. He was a smooth-as-silk skater, a DiMaggio on the ice, effortless, it seemed.”

“Gordie’s pretty good at those things,” Whalers’ trainer Joe Altott told Michael Farber in 1979 regarding crossword puzzles. “He doesn’t spell real well but he’s good at phrases. Sometimes he’s got the right word, but he spells it wrong and it really screws up the whole thing.”

In that same Maclean’s profile, Gzowski wrote:

To the players who suffer most from its effects, Howe’s cruelty is a thing to be admired rather than disliked. It is, simply, part of his superiority at their game; violence and intimidation is a facet of hockey, and Howe is good at all facets of the game. Furthermore. Howe has to be dirty. Because he is so much the outstanding performer on his team, he is — or would be if he allowed it — the most closely checked player in the league: stop Howe and you have stopped Detroit. But a man who holds Howe or clutches him or chips away at him for an evening’s play is not likely to come out of that game unscathed. “Sure you’re a little scared,” says Nesterenko, one of the few frank players in the league. “But you admire him for the way he can keep you off. It’s your job to stay with him and keep him under control, but unless you keep thinking about it all the time, you’re inclined to stay a step or so away from him.”

“I was the recipient of one of Gordie’s elbows,” Mark Messier said in 2003. “I think he did it more so that I can talk about it for the rest of my career than of bad intention. A way of welcoming me to the league.”

“Gordie Howe doesn’t often reminisce,” Michael Farber divulged in a 1979 report for Montreal’s Gazette, “although he says in the good ol’ days Terry Sawchuk and Marcel Pronovost were crossword whizzes.”

Frank Selke: “The Rocket was probably the most electrifying hockey player and most spectacular goal-producer of all time. He was a better box-office attraction than Howe. But there never has been a player able to do so many things in any era as your Saskatoon friend.”

Toe Blake: “He had such an arsenal of weapons. You had to cope with the stick, the elbows, and then that body … It was bad enough in the corners, but when you were out in front of the net, he’d take the back of your heels off. The only way you could stay in front was if you had rear-view mirrors.”

“Everybody always wanted to compare me to Gordie Howe,” Maurice Richard told Charles Wilkins for his book When The Final Buzzer Sounds (2000). “But I was never a natural hockey player like Gordie. He was stronger, more fluid, better with the puck. I used to say to him, ‘Gordie, you’re much better than I am, but you don’t have the drive to win games like I do.’ I always had a big heart for scoring — oh, I loved scoring goals. But I had to work hard for them.”

“Howe has amazing ability to pace himself.” This is Frank Selke again, in 1961. “He’s a player with seemingly limitless assets. His almost superhuman strength is one of them. He has powerful wrists. He is a passing smoothie, can fire as hard as anybody, makes remarkable plays from his right wing. Actually, he’s a centre playing the flank. He’s an exceptional stickhandler and he bamboozles opponents through his ambidextrous handling of a stick.”

“Gordie Howe is not a farmer,” E.M. Swift confirmed in a 1980 Sports Illustrated profile. “He has never been a farmer, although before he was born his father did own a homestead in Saskatchewan and grew wheat — when anything grew at all. Still, there is something about Gordie that calls to mind that manner of man — horse sense, perhaps. Equilibrium. Farmers get it from the land, from weather that one year makes the crops fat and the next year brings a famine, from prices that fluctuate unpredictably, from things beyond a man’s control. No sense hollering about it. Make do. Equilibrium. Who knows where Howe’s comes from? But it is there. He is steady. And he has a down-to-earth way of speaking, so that the toddling grandson is ‘like a dog, examining every damn tree.’ Farmers say things like that.”

“When I think about players,” Scotty Bowman has said, “I consider three ingredients, the head, heart, and the feet. Some players don’t have any of those, and some players have one or two. But Gordie had all three in high dimensions.”

“Another angle,” Frank Selke continued, “he’s always one of the roughest players in the league. Ask any of his opponents. Our players know. He’s got more elbows than an octopus and sure can use them. But he’s slick about it and the referees have trouble catching him. But I’m not detracting from his play. High scorers find the going tougher all the time. The Rocket and Howe have probably been subjected to more punishment from opponents than any players in the last decade.”

Maurice Richard, in 1961: “He’s a cute one and he’s dirty.”

“Gordie has no set play for a given situation,” said Don Blackburn, who coached him when he was with the Whalers. “I never know what he’ll do with the puck because there’s no limit to his creativity.”

A cardiologist who supervised Howe’s physical ahead of one WHA season said, “This man could run up Mount Everest.”

John Ferguson, a former fearsome Montreal Canadien: “One night he stuck the blade of his stick into my mouth and hooked my tongue for nine stitches.”

Sport Illustrated’s Mark Kram noted that at age 35, Howe’s hair was graying. “But his body is still sleek and hard. His shoulders dip down like the sides of a mountain, and his arms dangle loosely like the long limbs of a dead tree. He admits to losing a step in his long, rhythmic, economical skating stride, but his skating remains, along with his brilliant anticipation, a striking and captivating feature of the game. Howe’s face is smooth and lean and sharply defined, and one has to look closely to detect the thin, jagged lines of scar tissue that crawl over his eyes and lips and nose. In his career he has received more than 300 stitches in his face; he also has suffered the disappearance of an even dozen teeth.”

“Gordie was always such a big, awkward kid,” his own father, Ab, once said. “He was always so much bigger than the others. And always very shy. I can recall his brother Vic always yelling at him, ‘Gordie, when are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet?’”

Mrs. Howe agreed: “Yes, he was always clumsy as a boy.”

Ab: “Hockey was the only thing in his life. Any time of the year, any time of the day you’d see him with a stick in his hand. He’d walk along swatting at clumps of dirt or stones. Once one summer I came home from work, and there’s Gordie firing pucks at a barrel that was up against the side of the house. Shingles were all over the ground. I had to put my foot down on that. We were only renting the house.”

Peter Gzowski: “There is, in fact, very little about Gordie Howe that isn’t admirable.”

Wayne Gretzky: “The world isn’t as good a place as it was when he was here.”

(Top image, from 1966: Library and Archives Canada; 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)

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