Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Naming a bridge after Mr. Hockey is a class move

The powers that be did a good thing when they chose to name the soon-to-be-built International Trade Crossing after Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. From now on, it has been declared, the world shall refer to the new bridge that will connect Detroit, Mich., with Windsor, Ontario, as the “Gordie Howe International Bridge.”
Two thumbs up, or should we say, two elbows up.

Howe has meant so much to the Detroit-Windsor region since he broke into the National Hockey League as an 18-year old in 1946.

His mindboggling 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, which lasted through 1971, are unparalleled, highlighted by four Stanley Cups, six scoring titles, and six league MVP titles.

Howe’s draw came from well beyond the Motor City and Windsor on the Canadian side. Born in a Canadian prairie town, Howe’s playing style and legacy have transcended the game and are without borders.

It’s only fitting that this stalwart of a player, this game changer and perennial all-star – always high on the “best ever” lists that people like to argue about – has his name attached to a gargantuan, state-of-the-art structure that will further unite two countries in the name of progress and mobility.

Howe was an all-around player, one of the first to package up everything we now expect from today’s NHL players – strength, toughness and fearlessness with grace, awareness and scoring touch.

He was extremely charitable with his time and philanthropy off the ice, but when he laced up the skates, there was simply no other player in NHL history who intimidated other players both physically and on the scoreboard. While officially placing in the top-10 in scoring for 21 consecutive seasons, Howe was also the most feared man on the ice. He’s even been called the dirtiest player of all time by some of his peers.

Superstars on other teams were forced to change their own playing styles to deal with him. Top scorers and tough guys alike would spend entire shifts looking over their shoulders if Howe was around. His elbows were legendary. Make one mistake, one wrong turn, and boom. Lights out.

In addition to his abilities and longevity, Howe’s most valuable trait has always been his will, his determination. Whatever his team needed, or whatever the moment called for, Howe was the one you wanted out there.

Only a few players in history have had as much influence over the game. Think about it. Howe is really only in a league of three, playing right wing with Wayne Gretzky at center ice and Bobby Orr on defense. Not lost in the lore is that Gretzky donned his trademark No. 99 in honor of Howe’ No. 9. Even those guys, along with many of the game’s greats, call Gordie Howe “Mr. Hockey” and show him the utmost respect.

Legend has it that in his prime, Howe would receive fan mail simply addressed: “Mr. Hockey, Detroit, USA.” And the Post Office would deliver it to him.

But one of the coolest things about Howe was that after his NHL days were done, he spent virtually no time in retirement before signing with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. The offer was a great one because it put Gordie on the ice alongside his sons Mark and Marty. They were a family powerhouse, and “Father Time” himself notched 100 points that year at the age of 46.

The WHA merger with the NHL in 1979 gave Howe one more season at the highest level before he would retire as a Hartford Whaler. At age 51, Gordie Howe played all 80 games of the grueling professional season and played in the all-star game. The game that year was held in Detroit, so you can imagine the ovation when No. 9 took the ice. And again when he stole the puck, passed it and recorded an assist.

I remember his final swan song as a player very well. Of all things it happened 17 years after his 1980 retirement. The Detroit Vipers of the IHL decided to sign Gordie Howe to a contract in 1997 and get him on the ice for a single game – actually just a shift – so that at age 70, he could be the only player in history to play professional hockey in six different decades. When his time came, he left the bench, skated around, and went back. He didn’t score or lower the boom on anyone, but it will forever be notched in the history books.

Mr. Hockey is 87 now, and his health has not been the best in recent years. He had a series of strokes a few months ago, but was up and moving not long after. Some say it was because of the stem-cell treatment he had, but no doubt his determination has played a part.

His family posts occasional updates on his website, but no one can predict with any certainty whether Howe will be the one to cut the ribbon on his namesake bridge when the time comes.

Someone said that he does not do well with bed rest, that he’s always getting up and moving around. It’s tough to keep that spirit down.

Oh, and look out for those elbows.