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Larger Than Life

Gordie Howe is gone, but his Bunyan-esque legacy endures

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in late March, after Gordie Howe was serenaded by fans at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena three days before his 88th birthday, his son Murray told reporters about his father’s recent encounter with a little boy at a local ice rink. This kid was named Gordie, and he had clearly been hearing stories about his namesake for his entire young life. Even pushing 88, even in a diminished state, the Hall of Fame hockey player cut a giant figure before the child. “You could see it in the little boy’s eyes,” Murray Howe said. “In his eyes, my dad looked like Paul Bunyan.”

And who could blame him? Gordie Howe was a living legend, a man whose reputation cleared a path for him everywhere he went in the same way his ferocious elbows once did. He was, in the very literal sense of the word, awesome. His head was shaped sort of like Frankenstein’s. His shoulders were a midcentury-modern marvel, two sloping, cushioned Eames chairs slapped on either side of his trunk. (Bodies like his are why a torso is sometimes referred to as a trunk.) When Howe died Friday, his suitably outsized legacy remained: not just as Red Wings icon, not just as one of the great athletes in history, but as someone whose very presence changed a sport, defined a league, and left a mark — whether in the form of a bruise or a cherished memory — on everyone he came across.

In a 1996 ESPN commercial with Keith Olbermann, Howe mostly pretended to push the SportsCenter anchor around. Afterward, Olbermann thought, “I had just gotten my butt kicked by a 68-year-old man who wasn’t really trying.” Howe’s hands have always been more like paws, making even light physical contact with him feel like wrestling a bear. “I couldn’t hold anything without pain the rest of the night,” one fan recalled after shaking Howe’s hand at a book signing. And the player could use both with equal force: He could shoot righty or lefty. In a 1980 Sports Illustrated feature, writer E.M. Swift spoke with Gordie’s father, Ab, who said this about his son:

Ab remembers, “When he joined the Wings, I told the wife, ‘I hope that boy never fights. He’s got a blow that can kill a man.’ He’s both-handed, you know, like me. Worked on my crew two summers. Best man I ever had. Had him on the mixer with his brother Vern. He could pick up a cement bag in either hand — 90 pounds. Weren’t the weight so much as you couldn’t get a grip on them, the sacks were packed so tight. He’d pick them right up by the middle. His brother played out in two days, but Gordon, he liked that mixer.

NHL executive Brian Burke likes to tell a story about former Canucks captain Trevor Linden: Before he was taken in the 1988 draft, Linden called Burke to say that he would have to miss a required evaluation because he had to help his father on their cattle ranch. Linden, it turned out, was the guy relied upon to pin and hold the cattle down while they were branded and castrated. Burke allowed him to miss the test: He’d been told everything he needed to know.

It’s in large part because of Howe that an anecdote like that is celebrated in the NHL. Hockey has long been a sport that values farm-boy strength and lunch-pail work ethic, but what was different about Howe was that his game did not end there. He was a nasty player, mean and unforgiving, the kind who held grudges tightly and dropped gloves easily.

But he was no hapless goon: Until Wayne Gretzky (who idolized Howe) came along, Howe was the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer. He was voted the league’s MVP six times, appeared in 23 All-Star Games, and won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in the span of six seasons. He had “a long, gliding stride,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind in Sports Illustrated in 1955, which “can accelerate so effortlessly that even when he skates clean away from the opposing forwards and then circles a defenseman, he seems to be moving slower than they are.”

Howe still had this long, gliding stride nearly two decades later, when he joined the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros to play alongside two of his three sons, Mark (himself a future Hall of Famer) and Marty. In 1973–74, Howe reached 100 points in 70 games and was named league MVP. He was 46. Later, the Howes played for the Hartford Whalers. Gordie suited up for 80 games, recorded 41 points, and appeared in the NHL All Star Game one last time. When it was over it was 1980, and he was 52 years old.

He was, by every account, just the world’s most affable guy; there are thousands upon thousands of stories about people meeting him, and nearly all of them involve winks and grins and beers and ruffled hair and pretend (but terrifyingly precise) elbows and kids getting to cut lines. Howe’s hard-heartedness on the ice only softened him up for the time he spent off it.

As always, Howe’s best bodyguard was his own lore. “I tried to look for fights of him,” a YouTube commenter admitted eight months ago beneath a video of Howe, in his mid-40s, elbowing fools, “but man everybody was afraid of him.” Another agreed: “Yeah, watch any video of him playing. There seemed to be an eight-foot circle of space around him wherever he played. You had to be insane to mix it up with him.” (On Twitter, someone told the story of a WHA player assuming Howe had blinded him during a tussle in the corner. It turned out that this player’s helmet had simply spun around backward.) Even in his final years, after a 2014 stroke reduced him to a “200-pound jellyfish,” according to Marty, Howe had one huge fight left in that imposing frame. A Hail Mary stem cell treatment in Mexico that fall reversed the worst of his decline and allowed him to walk again. A year and a half later, when Mark told him they would go to the Red Wings game the next day to celebrate his 88th birthday, Howe was so excited he barely slept.

It is telling that achieving a so-called “Gordie Howe hat trick” involves recording a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game. It is even more telling that over the course of his five-decade-long career (six, if you count the shift he played for the IHL’s Detroit Vipers in 1997 at the age of 69) Howe only actually ever did this twice. What could be more Paul Bunyan than that?