When you talk about Gordie’s legacy, and many people have since he passed on Friday, most of what people say is overwhelmingly positive, often to the point of unintentional beatification. People talk about his numbers, which stood for many years, and his longevity, which is yet to be matched. Folks who had the pleasure of meeting him have shared hundreds of anecdotes, all uniformly funny and touching.
(I won’t share mine here, since I already wrote about it some time ago)
The experience seemed uncommonly universal amongst hockey fans, who are typically incredibly tribal. Gordie was around just shy of forever, coming into the league as World War 2 ended and retiring as the Reagan years began. By sheer force of will, he transcended the normal limitations of time and geography. He hung in and played so long that he went everywhere, met everyone and did everything. He was too big for one city or one decade.
I cringe whenever younger players take on nicknames like “Johnny Hockey” that invite the comparison to Gordie, because he was truly Mr. Hockey. He was sincerely beloved, even by fans of Detroit and Hartford’s rivals. Who else could earn a standing ovation in Montreal for scoring on the home team?
Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that writing about the idea of being earnest and hopeful has taught me, something about these human experiences draw out people with a pathological need to rain on parades. They see the absence of cynicism as a void which needs to be filled with their edgy and unique contrarian opinions.
The idea of retiring #9 league-wide came up almost immediately that day. There isn’t a lot of precedent; only Gretzky has number retired. #99, itself a tribute to Howe, never sat well with some of us. Not that Gretzky didn’t earn it. His numbers don’t lie. It just felt odd that the generational talent of the eighties was honored before honoring the generational talent that inspired him. If there was any doubt that Gretzky himself shared this discomfort, it was dispelled this week when the Great One came out and called for #9 to be retired permanently.
As so it began. While the majority of public sentiment remained rational, something about this idea drew out the cranks. When I shared the petition linked above on the blog’s Facebook page, I started receiving a series of bizarrely angry comments. They complained about the other greats to wear the number (a valid point, but not for keeping the number in circulation), that it was a slippery slope, that we would “run out of numbers”, and most offensive to me, that Howe was overrated or undeserving.
Most of those concerns are simply silly and beneath any lengthy rebuttal. In 99 years of existence, the NHL has retired exactly one number league-wide. There is no slippery slope and no shortage of numbers. No one playing the game now has had the kind of impact Howe or Gretzky did, and it seems unlikely that the modern NHL will ever produce another such player.
The argument that really irks me is the last one.
Perhaps, as universally beloved as he may be, Gordie enjoys a somewhat elevated status in Hartford, as he does in Detroit. It is a rare day for the Hartford Courant to publish anything that makes you feel proud to have been born here; more than a dozen such pieces were written the day Gordie died. His tenure here, described by wife Colleen as their “crescendo”, was the turning point for the city. Hartford’s growth was recent and the idea of being major league or having an identity distinct from Boston or New York was new. Folks were skeptical. Gordie’s choice to snub the NHL for Hartford granted us immediate legitimacy.
It should be noted that he only played here for three years, retiring about 35 years ago. I, as were most of my friends with whom I mourned his passing, were infants when he retired. As much as his stats and longevity are celebrated, they only tell part of the story. While Gordie played his last professional hockey game early in 1980, for us the eighties were a decade when he had the most impact. It’s something the facile analysis of Gretzky fan boys who distill the argument down to who has the most points totally misses.
The thing is, Gordie didn’t actually stop playing hockey. NHL retirement didn’t stop him the first time, and it didn’t take the second time either. Gordie spent that decade leading a Whalers alumni team that played a nearly constant schedule against amateur charity teams and youth hockey teams. I don’t think I know anyone who played youth hockey in Connecticut back then who hasn’t met him and skated on the same ice. It’s hard to imagine any NHL star today spending his time this way, never mind one of Gordie’s stature. It was like Babe Ruth hanging out at Little League games constantly .
This is not to suggest he was a saint; he was a thoroughly decent man, but a man. A kind of role model that doesn’t exist today. He cherished his wife, who played such a central role in managing his career that her name was eventually raised to the rafters beside Gordie’s in Hartford. He focused the last decade of his career around playing with his sons. He would spend hours signing autographs in hotels on the night before appearances so he would have time to talk to fans without looking down the whole time.
Conversely, he was such a terror on the ice that he only pulled off the famed “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” a few times before no one was willing to fight him at all. He was notorious for paying back hits with elbows, a tradition which continued well into his alumni team years. One of my favorite anecdotes involved a kid who thought he had a free pass to trip Gordie and paid dearly. He teased, busted balls, and elbowed anyone who didn’t keep their head up. Some folks may blush to hear this, but he was also know to drink and swear like a sailor.
Not a saint, but profoundly decent.
He was a role model that boys of my age, growing up in age where what it meant to be a man was becoming increasingly unclear, badly needed. He was loyal and tough and decent and funny. He was humble without being a doormat, a hero and a normal human being. He loved living here and taught us how to be proud of Hartford.
I won’t even pretend to speak for the people of Detroit and the many years he spent there, but I can only imagine the impact he had there if he did so much in his short time in Hartford.
The role he played in growing the game reverberates throughout the league, to every city and every team. Even Las Vegas, as much as it turns my stomach to mention that new NHL venture in the same breath as Gordie, owes their existence to a league Gordie Howe helped build.
There is no arena where is name is not hallowed; retiring his number is simply a formality. A matter of decency.
There is no statistic that will ever quantify his value, but if there were he would be the #1 of all time and no one (not even Wayne Gretzky) would ever break his record.
He is the Greatest One that ever was or ever will be.
Retire Number Nine.