Goodbye, Gordie

Upon the death of NHL legend Gordie Howe, we reached out to NHL stars from four different generations to get their personal memories of “Mr. Hockey.” 

Rod Gilbert
NHL Hall of Famer (1960–1978)

Everybody was afraid of Gordie Howe. Everybody.

I think that’s why he was able to play into his 50s, because everybody was scared of him. He was a great all-around player and had great passion for the game, of course, but fear was the real secret to his durability. Guys gave Gordie room to work because he was intense and he was fierce. I know from personal experience.

It was early in the 1962–63 season, my rookie year, when I played my first game in Detroit at the old Olympia. I was only 20 or 21, and I was so excited. I was playing right wing for the Rangers and I was on a line with two other young guys, Jean Ratelle, who was 22, and Dave Balon, who was 24. We usually got matched up against the top line of whichever team we were playing. Against the Red Wings, that meant we were going up against Gordie, Alex Delvecchio and Parker MacDonald. Tough duty.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players' Tribune
Charlres Hoff/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Well, near the end of the first period I woke up flat on my back in the middle of the ice, with ammonia and smelling salts burning my nose. Two of my teammates propped me up and helped me skate toward the bench. And the linesman was looking at me. I had double vision, but I could see him as he skated by. Then he said, “Number 9.” That’s all.

I found out later that Gordie had elbowed me in the temple. I never saw him. He never got a penalty for it. That was just the way it was. From that time on, I was aware of him. How could I not be?

I think today is a sad day for Gordie’s immediate family, but the rest of us should celebrate his life and the tremendous contribution he made to hockey. I always admired him off the ice. He was so nice and generous to everybody. It was just on the ice where he didn’t like the guys on the other team. He certainly didn’t like anybody who took the puck away from him!

But as intense as he was, he was also a complete player. Did you know that Gordie was ambidextrous? He could shoot righthanded, but if he had a better angle, he’d switch hands with that flat stick of his and shoot lefthanded. That used to impress the hell out of me because my backhand wasn’t really precise. And his style of play was so strong. He was a great passer and had this powerful stride. And he protected the puck really well — you could almost never take it away from him. He was so skillful, and he commanded respect.

But he got a lot of room to operate because of how fiercely he played. He got a lot of space in front of the net, and nobody tripped him near the boards. He always had an edge. When he played with his boys in the WHA and one of them got hit, he would take it upon himself to punish the guy who’d done it. If you got out of line a little bit against one of his teammates, he was pretty dangerous.

I always swore I would pay him back for knocking me out. I thought, Well, I’m going to get him eventually, when it’s the right time. And wouldn’t you know that it never was! We played in the league together for more than nine seasons, and every game we played against each other it seemed like one of my teammates would get cut, or Gordie would butt-end somebody, or he’d knock somebody out. I wasn’t too anxious to mess with that.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players’ Tribune
AP File Photo

At the All-Star Game in Minnesota in 2004, I was at an NHL alumni dinner and Gordie was there. We saw each other a lot at these sorts of things in later years, and we got to be good friends.  At my table, I was telling everybody the story of the time he had knocked me out, and how I had always promised myself that I would get him back. I told everybody that I was waiting until he went into an old-age home. I was going to flip his wheelchair and tell the nurses to go tell Gordie that number 7 did it. Boy, did we all laugh. Everybody at the table was having fun with that one.

The next morning, I was in the hospitality room and Gordie was sitting right across from me. He was looking right at me and winking. So I said, “What’s up, Gordie? How you doin’? How do you feel?”

He said, “I feel good, but I have a question for you: Did I ever get you?”

I said, “Gordie, who did you not get? You got everybody!”

He was laughing, and he said, “Well, I heard you intend to get me back.”

And I said, “Not yet!”

Later on, Gordie’s thunder kind of got stolen by Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. People started talking about them as having been better than Gordie. But that’s because those people never played against him. I did. Gordie was the best.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players’ Tribune
Preston Stroup/AP Photo

I want to give my sincere condolences to the entire Howe family. I know that it’s a sad day, but the memories of Gordie Howe’s life should be celebrated and honored.

He was tough. He was fierce. I have the scars to prove it.

Above all, he was the best to ever play.

Farewell, my friend.

Ron Francis
NHL Hall of Famer (1981–2004)

It was early in my professional career when Gordie Howe changed the way I played hockey forever. Before one of my first few seasons in Hartford, Gordie, who had recently retired, would occasionally skate with us informally prior to training camp since his sons Marty and Mark still played for the Whalers.

At one skate, I was bearing down on the goal with the puck on my stick when I felt something slide into my right glove and lift my arm up above my head. It was Gordie. He had slipped the blade of his stick into my glove and was yanking my arm around like a puppet on a string. “That’s why you take the laces out of your gloves kid,” he told me. “Yes, Mr. Howe,” I said.

I skated straight to the bench and removed the strings from my gloves. I didn’t use them again for the rest of my 23-year career.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players’ Tribune
Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

I grew up in Sault Sainte Marie, Ont., right across the St. Marys River from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We used to get Red Wings games on television every once in a while, and I can remember watching Gordie play. He was amazing. Years later, he attended my charity golf tournament that I held each summer in my hometown to benefit the Special Olympics. Gordie stayed late and signed every autograph. He truly enjoyed the people and made sure to spend time and personally connect with each person. I’ve never seen anything like it.

That was Gordie Howe. A tough, cagey player on the ice, and a humble, kind man off it. He was a legend for a reason.​

Mike Modano

NHL Hall of Famer (1989–2011)

I always wore number 9 because of Gordie Howe. Ever since I started playing junior hockey up in Saskatchewan with the Prince Albert Raiders, it had to be number 9. My dad grew up in Boston, and I remember him telling me stories when I was a little kid about Gordie coming to the Garden with the Red Wings and terrorizing the Bruins.

Gordie is such an icon that you don’t need to watch YouTube to get an understanding of what he means to the game of hockey. His legend has been passed down by word of mouth, from junior hockey buses to NHL locker rooms. To this day, guys in the NHL still talk about his toughness, and the way he was able to control the game.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players’ Tribune
Charles Hoff/NY Daily News via Getty Images

When I played for Detroit near the end of my career, I was struck by the fact that wherever we went on the road, it seemed like half the crowd was wearing red. Gordie Howe turned people all over the country into Red Wings fans. He single-handedly built the legacy of the winged wheel.

Gordie Howe will live on in NHL locker rooms as long as people are still playing hockey. I’ll guarantee you right now, even 50 years from now, any time a guy has a goal, an assist and a fight, there will still be a rowdy little celebration in the room, and you’ll hear Gordie’s name.

The funny thing is, I read that Gordie Howe only had two Gordie Howe Hat Tricks in his career. I can’t think of a better testament to the respect he commanded as a player. Who the hell wanted to fight Gordie?

Rest in peace, number 9. You were the consummate professional on and off the ice.

Tyler Seguin
Dallas Stars

When I heard on Friday morning that Gordie Howe had passed away, a singular image of the hockey legend came to mind. I keep coming back to it. It’s a photo from back in the day — a black-and-white shot — that’s just Gordie with a fishing pole.

Gordie Howe | Detroit Red Wings | The Players’ Tribune

He’s not even on the ice. But it’s an incredible photo. Gordie is just massive. I remember seeing it for the first time as a kid and being in awe. The picture went along with an article about this tough guy who had gone after him for being the best player in the league. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work out well for that other guy. He ended up with a completely broken nose and had to be all bandaged up — just to hold his nose together. When you see the photo of Gordie with his fishing rod, you can understand why. It was clear that at that point if you wanted to go after the best player in the league, you had to know that he was also probably the toughest player in the league.

Gordie wasn’t to be messed with. And he was just such a complete player on the ice. He was everything all at once. That’s probably what I’ll always remember about him. As a kid growing up, my father and my father’s father talked a lot about Gordie, and he became a bigger-than-life figure for me. I never had the chance to meet him, or to see him play. But the truth is, in so many ways, I feel like I knew Gordie Howe. Based on how much I’ve heard about his greatness, and how many clips I’ve seen, I’ve kind of pieced it all together in my head. At this point, I feel as though I’ve watched hundreds of his games. I will always hold those memories and images dear. And, of course, I’ll never get tired of marveling at that old fishing photo.