Remembering “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe

Gordie Howe visits Gordie Howe Hockeyland in St. Clair Shores, Michigan in 1966
Gordie Howe visits Gordie Howe Hockeyland in St. Clair Shores, Michigan in 1966 (photo: Photo Credit: Arnie Lee, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the funeral for Gordie Howe, the legendary hockey player for the Detroit Red Wings. It’s taking place at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. Even though Howe wasn’t Catholic, several of his family members are, and Gordie and his family were close to Cathedral rector Father J.J. Mech, and they requested a funeral Mass to honor Howe as a Detroit icon.

Late in life, Howe received experimental stem cell treatment that included both adult stem cells and also, regrettably, fetal stem cells. His children approved the morally problematic therapy, although it’s not clear that Howe understood the moral implications, given his advanced age and health problems.

In any event, let us pray for the repose of Howe’s soul and the consolation of his family. He and his wife Colleen were married more than 55 years when she died in 2009. She and Gordie are survived by four children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

As a native of the Motor City and born in 1962, I caught the tail end of Gordie Howe’s legendary career with the Detroit Red Wings, which ended after the 1970-71 season.

Years later, as a young Catholic journalist, I would receive a memorable phone call from the man known as “Mr. Hockey.” More on that later.

After two years of retirement, Gordie returned to the ice, playing in the upstart World Hockey Association (WHA), and then a final year in the 1979-80 season with the Hartford Whalers. when they joined the National Hockey League.

Gordie led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup Champions, and was six times both the NHL’s leading scorer and MVP.

By the time he definitively retired, Howe had set NHL records for most goals (801), assists (1,049) and overall points (1,850). And that doesn’t count his WHA statistics, which include leading his team, the New England Whalers in scoring with 96 points during the 1977-78 season.

At age 50! Howe was 52 when he finally retired, a remarkable feat for a sport like hockey, which—similar to football—requires speed, strength and durability amidst a lot of physical contact. I remember George Blanda—a quarterback and placekicker, who played in the National Football League until he was 48—

but the NFL Hall of Famer was mainly a kicker his last five years with the Oakland Raiders.

Making it to 40 is rather impressive in the NHL or NFL. But 50? Howe’s two years off undoubtedly helped him deal with an arthritis problem in his wrist and to rejuvenate otherwise, but Gordie attributes his longevity to his love for the game.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it was my love for the game,” Howe told The Detroit Free Press when he approached his 75th birthday in 2003. “To succeed, you’ve got to love what you’re doing. I tell kids, if you don’t love it, get out of the way for someone who does.”

And Scotty Bowman, himself a legendary coach who coached a record nine Stanley Cup champions, said of Howe, “He was the best ever.”

“If you were ever going to make a mold for a hockey player with five strengths— offense, defense, durability, toughness and versatility—you wouldn’t look past Gordie Howe.”

Even Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One” who broke Howe’s scoring records and idolized Howe from his youth, still says Howe—who was known for his tough, physical play—was the greatest. And not just on the ice. He was the consummate sportsman when Gretzky prepared to eclipse Howe’s career-points records.

“My dad said, ‘He’s what you should be when somebody’s closing in on your record,” Gretzky remembered. He's genuinely happy for you, and that's more important than anything.’”

Howe became a second father, dear friend and role model for Gretzky. He is serving as one of Howe’s pallbearers, calling it an honor right up there with meeting Pope John Paul II and lighting the Olympic torch at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“I was enamored with him from a young age,” Gretzky said. “So when I met him for the first time—a lot of times, when you meet your idol, you say it’s OK, everybody has bad days, right? But when I met Gordie, oh, my gosh, he was bigger, better and nicer. He was everything and more that I imagined him to be. He has a way about him, whether he was talking to my father, one of the waitresses at the diner or the prime minister. He had a way with anybody and everybody, put everybody at ease. He was that nice. Just a really good person.”

I got to experience Howe’s goodness in the summer of 1988. I was serving as a reporter for The Catholic Observer, then the newspaper of the Diocese of Springfield, Mass. I had read that one of Howe’s children had been married in the Catholic Church and happily inferred that Howe was Catholic. And I thus thought Gordie would make a great interview, given that he also then lived in the neighboring Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

So I got a contact number and left a message, hoping he’d call back. Many famous sports professionals might not have called back, or politely declined through one of their representatives.

But Gordie Howe did call back. I found out he was Presbysterian and that one of his children had recently become Catholic. Gordie thankfully wasn’t a diehard Calvinist, so he wasn’t unhappy with his child’s conversion. To the contrary. More to the point, even though my Catholic story idea on Howe now couldn’t come to fruition, Gordie and I talked about 15-20 minutes about a variety of things.

I experienced what Gretzky and so many, many others have experienced: A man who didn’t allow his superstardom to undermine his virtues of charity and humility, but rather one who used his fame to exercise and cultivate those virtues for the inspirational benefit of his numerous fans, including this writer.

During our conversation, I encouraged Gordie to become Catholic. That didn’t visibly happen this side of the grave, but I’m glad a Mass is being offered for him, and I hope and pray he’s understanding—and will soon experience—the liberating truth of the fullness of the Christian faith. God bless you and thanks for the memories, Mr. Hockey.