Thursday, June 16, 2016


In hockey lore, there is the fabled "Gordie Howe hat trick": a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. It is a venerated achievement, signifying a type of manly approach to the game we all love. To score a goal indicates the tenacity and aggression of a sniper. To get an assist is the consummate act of a good teammate, to set up your fellow so HE can score a goal. And, of course, the fight is the thing the Don Cherrys of the world worship the most: the ability to step in for your team to engage in fisticuffs on ice to better your team's image, to "send a message" to your opponent that, not only can we beat you in skill and according to the rules of the game, but we can also beat you "in the alley", to borrow from Conn Smythe. In the recently completed Stanley Cup playoffs, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks offered a comment on the "Gordie Howe hat trick" as being one of the great accomplishments of his career. I believe he has recorded four of them. Sydney Crosby, of the champion Pittsburgh Penguins, even has two to his credit, and he beams when reminded of this deed.

In point of fact, Gordie Howe himself had only two "Gordie Howe hat tricks", yet he is credited with being the originator of the accomplishment. According to hockey records, the first "Gordie Howe hat trick" was recorded well before Howe entered the league. For a man who has his name attached to the deed, he was never really proud of it. In fact, he was more proud of his Stanley Cup wins, for which he was an indispensable member of the Detroit Red Wings teams which won. He also set records for goals and assists, and won the MVP for the league numerous times. In Howe's world, talent and skill counted for more than the fighting. Because of that, Howe is remembered for being a gentleman, rather than a "goon".

Make no mistake: Gordie Howe was a fierce competitor. He hated losing. In his era, his Red Wings battled the Montreal Canadiens for hockey supremacy often. As a right-winger, he went up against the equally fabled Maurice "Rocket" Richard, a left-winger for the Habs. Their battles were the stuff of legend, and there was no clear winner. That was how it was supposed to be: when two god-like talents square off, there is only the rest of us to stand in awe of their accomplishments. The Rocket passed into immortality years ago. Recently, Gordie joined him.

I am lucky to have seen Howe play, albeit on TV, during the early sixties, when Howe still had much of his immense skill on display. He was a marvel. He had talent that transcended many of the other greats of his time. And he had toughness, not the kind where he was too willing to drop the gloves and duke it out. His toughness was in a single-minded will to win. Yes, the elbows came up often: yes, he would drop the gloves to face a challenger who thought he was tougher: and, yes, that challenger was often beaten soundly. But it was the skill and the will to win that mattered.

There have been many wonderful players to grace the game we love. The pre-war roster is now largely those whose names and accomplishments fill pages in hockey history books: Morenz, Joliet, Clancy, Vezina. And there are those that have their memory live on in the early TV days: Howe, Richard, Hull, Beliveau, Orr, Esposito, Kennedy. And there are the modern heros: Gretzky, Lemieux, Trottier, Perreault, Sittler, Clarke, Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos, Datsyuk, Tavares. And there are certainly more to come.

But among those greats, there is a small group of Immortals .... those whose names will never die. Men who played the game with superior skill, intense determination, and a humility and humanity that make them stand as giants and demi-gods.

Such a man is Mr. Hockey. Such a man is Gordie Howe. Rest in peace, Mr. Howe.... you were one of the Immortals.

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