Many retirees ponder the decision to return to work or take on a second career. Money is often an issue, but many do so because they miss the sense of value and self-respect that comes from being productive.
For professional athletes, their loss of self-worth is even more pronounced as they are no longer the centre of attention. Many have attempted “un-retiring,” but only a few have played at the level they achieved during their prime. Soccer legend Pelé, boxing great George Foreman, and basketball’s Michael Jordan would all rank high on a list of the greatest comebacks in sports history. But with all due respect, to the aforementioned athletes, the No. 1 spot belongs to a soft-spoken hockey player from Floral, Saskatchewan.
Starting in 1946, Gordie Howe patrolled right wing on the Detroit Red Wings for 25 seasons. His six Hart trophies as league MVP, four Stanley Cup championships, and six scoring titles earned him the nickname Mister Hockey. From 1949 to 1969, he was among the top five scorers every season, regularly scoring 80 to 90 points in the old six team NHL. His physical playing style inspired the term “The Gordie Howe Hat Trick: a goal, an assist and a fistfight.”
When the League expanded to 12 teams in 1967, the diluted talent pool benefited veterans like Gordie. In 1968-69, he scored 103 points, the only time an NHL player over age 40 scored 100 or more points in a season. But when his total dipped to 52 two seasons later, it seemed that Father Time, and injuries, had finally caught up with the venerable superstar.
Gordie retired from the Red Wings in 1971 at the age of 42, accepting a public relations job in their front office. However, he soon became frustrated with a token position that required little more than attending award ceremonies, and he missed being at the centre of the hockey universe. After a couple of years, Mr. Hockey was ready for a new challenge.
That challenge presented itself when a new hockey league, called the World Hockey Association, took to the ice in 1972-73, aiming to compete with the NHL by signing veteran stars to lucrative contracts to complement their rosters of journeymen and minor-leaguers. One of the new teams, The Houston Aeros, made headlines when they drafted Gordie’s teenage sons, Mark and Marty, who were too young to play in the NHL. The hockey world was soon abuzz that Gordie was coming out of retirement in order to play with his two boys. One day, the elder Howe called Houston coach and ex-teammate Bill Dineen and casually asked him if he would like to sign three Howes instead of two. “Hell, yes!” Dineen declared.
Gordie’s wife Colleen, who had acted as her husband’s agent for the last several years, negotiated a four-year package deal for all three Howes worth nearly $2.5 million, more than Gordie had made during his last 18 NHL seasons. There was speculation that his comeback was merely a publicity stunt designed to generate hype for the upstart WHA. Many feared that the 45-year-old hockey legend would embarrass himself. But Gordie reported to training camp in excellent shape. His two-year break had helped heal some old injuries and, after a few weeks, he was back in game form.
The city of Houston embraced its newest celebrities; a downtown skyscraper was draped in a banner that read, “Welcome to Howeston!” Aeros ticket sales skyrocketed, and the team packed them in on the road as well. The rejuvenated Papa Howe quickly dispelled any concerns about his playing abilities. He notched 100 points during the 1973-74 regular season, good enough for third in league scoring, and led his team in capturing the league championship. He also took the Most Valuable Player award, which was named after him the following season. When asked how he managed to play so well at the age of 45, Gordie just said, “I got the love of the game back.”
Gordie’s original contract with Houston specified that he would play for only one year, and then move into the front office. But after his amazing debut season, he decided to keep going, and for two more years, he continued to rack up astonishing numbers. He tallied 99 points in 1974-75, again leading the Aeros in winning the championship, and scored 102 points during the 1975-76 campaign - his highest-ever point total - at the age of 48. But in spite of their on-ice success, the Houston Aeros, like many other WHA franchises, faced money problems. When team owners failed to meet the payroll, the team folded after the 1976-77 season. Gordie’s point total had slipped to 68 that year, so when the Aeros went under fans wondered if he would finally retire for good. Once again, Mr. Hockey had other ideas.
Gordie decided to keep playing, so it was time to find a new team. His heart was still in Detroit, so Colleen put together a proposal to the Red Wings that would see her two sons as players and her husband eventually returning to the front office, possibly as general manager. But Wings owner Bruce Norris was still peeved about Gordie’s abrupt departure four years earlier. To make matters worse, Detroit general manager Ted Lindsay, Gordie’s ex-line mate, was on the outs with the Howes since maligning the WHA and its 49-year-old star. Lindsay couldn’t, or wouldn’t, obtain Mark’s NHL rights from Montreal, so the deal collapsed.
Colleen had better luck negotiating with the WHA’s New England Whalers, where she bagged Gordie a 10-year personal services contract worth $5 million for combined player/front office duties. In his first season, the 50-year-old Gordie produced numbers that defied logic, scoring 96 points. Whalers coach Harry Neale, now a CBC colour commentator, called it “the greatest achievement in sports history” in a television documentary. When Neale scheduled a mandatory practice, that didn’t include Gordie, a few players complained about the star’s preferential treatment. Neale recalled that, “I looked them in the eye and declared, ‘When you turn 50, you can have an extra day off, too. That was the end of the conversation.’”
On December 7, 1977, Gordie scored the 1,000th goal of his combined NHL and WHA careers, including playoffs. Neale stated in Dick Irvin’s *Behind The Bench* that Gordie was so focused on scoring the goal that he sat on the bench between shifts with his left hand in a bucket of warm water for arthritis, and his right hand in a bucket of ice for a sore wrist. After he reached the milestone, an X-ray revealed that he had scored the landmark goal with a broken hand.
By the end of the 1978-79 season, the WHA was near bankruptcy. An agreement was proffered whereby four WHA teams would be absorbed into the NHL, one of which was New England. At the age of 52, Howe returned to the NHL for one final season. He recorded just 41 points, but he played in every game and, as opposition players soon discovered, his famous elbows were as sharp as ever. By the end of that season, he had attained an iconic status to the point where his on-ice contribution was nearly irrelevant.
Since hanging up the blades for good in 1980, Gordie has pursued various business interests and made numerous charity-raising appearances. As most local hockey fans know, he is a part owner of The Western Hockey League Vancouver Giants. On March 17, 2008, The Giants celebrated his upcoming 80th birthday with a special Gordie Howe Night. Over 12,000 fans came out to get a glimpse of the hockey legend.
There has been a great deal of conjecture about Gordie’s miraculous longevity and inexplicable comeback. His extraordinary physique, incredible strength and rigorous conditioning have all been cited as contributing factors, and no doubt, he was also rejuvenated by the thrill of playing with his sons. But, above all, it may have been his deep devotion to the game that inspired one of sport’s greatest comebacks. As he typically understated in his autobiography, “I truly played the game for the love of it; that’s what kept me on the ice for hours as a boy and brought me back to the NHL as a grandfather.”
Mister Hockey. The “Un-retirement” King. Whichever label you prefer, Gordie Howe continues to inspire.
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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