Sunday, March 31, 2013

Gordie Howe's 85th Birthday

Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey®, was born on this date 85 years ago in 1928 in Floral, Saskatchewan. He made his NHL debut in 1946 wearing #17 and changed to his iconic #9 at the start of the following season for the purpose of securing a more spacious lower sleeping berth on the train, as while the team was traveling, accommodations were allocated based on each players sweater number.


One of the most dominant players in NHL history, Howe would finish in the top five in league scoring for twenty straight seasons.

Teamed with linemates Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, "The Production Line" would dominate the NHL and lead Detroit to first place in the regular season standings for each of the four seasons they played together from 1948-49 to 1951-52, a span that would include a pair Stanley Cup Championships in 1950 and 1952. So dominant was the line that they finished first, second and third in league scoring in 1949-50, led by Lindsay's 78 points in 69 games.

Howe would not be around to lift the Stanley Cup in 1950, having suffered a fractured skull earlier in the playoffs, which required emergency surgery to relieve the pressure.

Howe would return to form the following season of 1950-51, scoring 86 points to win the scoring title by 20 points over his nearest competition, the first of seven times he would win the Art Ross Trophy.

Howe would continue throughout the 1950's to accumulate championships and awards, winning the Stanley Cup in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955, the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion from 1951-1954 and 1957, and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league MVP in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1958 and 1960.

In 1960 Howe registered an assist in a 2-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs to score his 1,000th NHL point, the first player in the 44 year history of the league to reach that milestone and he did it in only his 938th game. It would be another eight years before Jean Beliveau would become the second 1,000 point player and another 20 years before Howe would score his final point. Remember, Howe already had 14 years in the league behind him at this point!

1963 would see Howe capture both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies once more and in 1965 Howe would score his 600th NHL goal in a game versus the Montreal Canadiens, becoming the first player in NHL history to record 600 goals. It would take another seven years until Bobby Hull would become the second to 600 in 1972.

In 1968-69, aided by the recent NHL expansion to 12 teams which created a longer schedule of games against some admittedly weaker opponents, Howe achieved his one and only 100 point NHL season with 44 goals and 58 assists for 103 points.

Howe would play two more seasons for Detroit, which included becoming the first player to reach 1,000 assists early in the 1970-71 season, his last with the Red Wings prior to retiring after the season due to a chronic wrist injury. He then took a job with the club's front office and was prepared for a life as a retired hockey player.

In the meantime, a new professional league came into being, the World Hockey Association. The league began with the 1972-73 season and included a franchise in Texas, the Houston Aeros. For the 1973-74 season, the Aeros had signed brothers Mark and Marty Howe to a pair of four-year, $400,000 contracts in early June of 1973 and two weeks later, they lured the boys' father and NHL legend, the now 45-year-old Gordie, who had already been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame the previous year following his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings after 25 seasons. It's safe to say that Howe's 1687 games of NHL experience was greater than the rest of the Aeros roster combined.

"My only regret is I'm sorry I'm not the Gordie Howe I was ten years ago to fulfill the goals the Aeros have in store for me. It's not too often an individual gets a second chance and that's what the Aeros have given me," Howe said. "A chance to play with my sons."

Mark,Gordie and Marty Howe

The addition of the Howe's gave the league a huge boost in credibility and exposure and allowed the legend of Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe to continue to grow. He had surgery to improve his bad wrist and relished the opportunity to play with his sons. Gordie also ensured that his son's would have plenty of time and space to learn their craft professionally, as any player who laid a big hit on Mark or Marty was sure to be paid back with interest by Gordie at the first available opportunity!

His game in Houston was a model of consistency, as he picked right up where he left off with 31 goals, including the 800th of his professional career. Additionally, his 100 points in 1973-74 were good for third overall in WHA scoring as the Aeros had the best record in the league by 11 points.

Additionally, Gordie was also named the league's Most Valuable Player in 1974, a trophy that would be renamed in his honor in 1976, while he was still an active player! In the playoffs that season Houston swept the Jets in four, survived an all out war with the Minnesota Fighting Saints in six games to advance to the Avco Cup Finals. Once in the finals, they swept the Chicago Cougars in four straight, giving the Aeros their first WHA title and Howe his first championship since 1955 with Detroit.

The original expectation in 1973 was that Gordie, who also signed a four-year contract, would play one year and then move into the Aeros front office. That was not to be however, as Gordie returned for a second WHA season. While Larry Lund led the club with 108 points, Gordie duplicated his output from the season prior with 99 points while Mark Howe contributed 76 points from the blueline after 79 the year before.

The Aeros again won the West Division with the league's best record by 14 points and dispatched the Cleveland Crusaders in five and the San Diego Mariners in four prior to sweeping the Nordiques in the finals to defend their title and become the first repeat winner in WHA history on this date in 1975.

Howe would once again lead the Aeros in scoring in 1975-76 with 102 points, 26 clear of his son Mark and Frank Hughes, but would only place 10th in the now wide-open WHA.

The following season of 1976-77 saw Gordie limited to 62 games and 68 points but he yet again reached a milestone never before achieved by a professional hockey player as he scored his 900th career regular season goal in March of 1977. Fittingly, his son Marty earned an assist on the landmark goal.

Gordie Mark Marty Howe, Gordie Mark Marty Howe

Howe was quoted as saying the puck was "aimed well, shot bad, and went in good." Howe was actually more concerned with getting his 903rd goal, as it would give him 20 for the season, continuing a streak which dated back to the 1949-50 season, 26 seasons in all. He would reach that mark, finishing the year with 24 goals in all.

Prior to the 1977-78 season, with their four year contracts having now expired, all three Howes moved en masse to the New England Whalers where Gordie's streak would extend to 27 seasons, as he would score 34 times to lead the Whalers in goals, as well as points in 1977-78. He would just miss out on extending the streak again in 1978-79 by the slimmest of margins at the age of 50, when he scored 19 while being limited to 58 games, his first season of less than 60 games since 1949.

Gordie Mark Marty Howe Whalers, Gordie Mark Marty Howe Whalers

Howe would play one final season with the Whalers, now renamed he Hartford Whalers as one of the conditions of their entry into the NHL. His 15 goals that season would push his final NHL career total past 800 with 801 and make his final professional total 975, thanks to his 174 goals while in the WHA.

Gordie Howe Whalers NHL, Gordie Howe Whalers NHL

While Wayne Gretzky would garner the headlines for breaking Howe's NHL record with his 802nd goal on March 23, 1994, his combined professional total between the WHA and NHL stands at 940, 35 short of the legendary Howe's 975.

Today's featured jersey is a 1954-55 Detroit Red Wings Gordie Howe jersey. Howe and the Red Wings would win their third Stanley Cup of Howe's career following the 1954-55 season. This sweater can be traced back to that era by the lack of sleeve numbers, which did not appear until later thanks to the advent of television coverage.

Detroit Red Wings 1955-56 jersey, Detroit Red Wings 1955-56 jersey
Detroit Red Wings 1955-56 jersey, Detroit Red Wings 1955-56 jersey
photos courtesy of Classic Auctions

Bonus jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 1976-77 Houston Aeros Gordie Howe jersey. We have seen a number of different variations for Gordie Howe Aeros jerseys, including his full name on the back with serifed letters as seen on today's featured jersey, "G. HOWE", also using the same serifed letters, and finally his full name on the back with standard, sans-serif block letters.

Research indicates that the sans-serif lettering was not actually worn on the ice at any time by the Aeros during Howe's days with the club and that the "G. Howe" variation was from the pre-season of Howe's first year with Houston, meaning all genuine Howe Aeros game worn jerseys should have his full name on the back in the serifed font.

Houston Aeros 76-77 jersey, Houston Aeros 76-77 jersey
Houston Aeros 76-77 jersey, Houston Aeros 76-77 jersey

Extra bonus jersey: Today's extra bonus jersey is a 1977-78 New England Whalers Gordie Howe jersey. Their original green road and white home 1972-73 WHA jerseys featured a "W" with a harpoon in a circle, which was simplified to just a larger "W" and harpoon for the Whalers second season of 1973-74 with the addition of gold trim to their green and white colors. Those jerseys survived relatively unchanged for the remainder of their days in the WHA.

Upon entering the NHL, and undergoing their name change from "New England" to "Hartford" they club modernized their jerseys, debuting a clever new logo of a "W" topped off by a whale tail, with the negative space creating a subtle "H" for those clever fans who studied it long enough. The addition of blue trim made for an attractive set of jerseys, still topped off by the "Pucky the Whale" shoulder patches, worn since day one in the WHA.

New England Whalers 1977-78 jersey photo NewEnglandWhalers1977-78Fjersey.png
New England Whalers 1977-78 jersey photo NewEnglandWhalers1977-78Bjersey.png

Today's video section has plenty of great footage and begins with the "Legends of Hockey" profile of Gordie Howe.

Here is an unusual find, Gordie Howe on the TV game show, "What's My Line?" being questioned by Hogan's Heroes' Colonel Klink Werner Klemperer and Soupy Sales. Howe's legendary toughness is apparent, as he is unfazed at being interrogated by a Nazi prison camp commandant.

Gordie tells Keith Olberman how hockey used to be and to respect your elders.

 Next up, Gordie discussing coming out of retirement to join Houston with baseball great Tom Seaver.

Were very excited to share this rare footage of the Aeros winning the 1974 Avco Cup over the Chicago Cougars.

Don't miss the exciting, miraculous conclusion of the same game between the Aeros and Jets on December 5, 1975.

Here is footage from the 1979 WHA All-Star Game, when Gordie famously played on a line with youngster Gretzky.

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