GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gordie Howe isn’t simply a Detroit Red Wings icon. He’s an NHL icon. He symbolizes the entire sport of hockey, literally given the nickname Mr. Hockey.
And he was tough. In a Sports Illustrated profile from 1964, Howe estimated that he lost a dozen teeth and had received more than 300 stitches in his face alone. And that was 15 years before his playing career ended.
“I had 50 stitches in my face one year,” Howe told Sports Illustrated. “That was a bad year. I only got 10 stitches last year. That was a good year.”
He was known for the Gordie Howe hat trick, registering a goal, an assist and a fight all in one game. Even though he accomplished the feat twice in the NHL, it personified his legacy as a player: one of the most skilled hockey players in the world and one of the toughest, too.
But his legendary career — and life — was nearly cut short after an on-ice incident.
Tuesday will mark 73 years since Howe flew head-first into the boards and suffered a near-fatal brain injury.
It happened on March 28, 1950. The Red Wings were the best team in the league that year, at that time still limited to the “Original Six.” But their championship hopes were nearly dashed during the first playoff game of the season.
The 21-year-old Howe was already a superstar. In the 1949-1950 season, Howe was second in the NHL with 35 goals, fifth in the league with 33 assists and was named to his second All-Star Game.
So to see him fly head-first into the boards and lay on the ice unconscious, the Red Wings not only feared for their life of their teammate, but also their Stanley Cup chances.
Howe was trying to make a play on Toronto Maple Leafs captain Ted Kennedy. Depending on your vantage point, it appeared Howe stumbled while trying to lay a check. Others say Kennedy struck Howe in the face with the butt-end of his stick. Regardless, the end result left Howe motionless on the ice.
Trainers quickly rushed to his side, carrying him off on a stretcher while fans watched silently. He was rushed to Harper Hospital in critical condition. In addition to a fractured skull, shattered cheekbone, broken nose and a lacerated eye, Howe was dealing with a brain hemorrhage.
He was rushed into surgery, where doctors drilled a small opening in Howe’s skull to drain fluid and alleviate pressure on the brain.
His family from Saskatoon were summoned to his bedside. Doctors couldn’t guarantee that Howe would survive his injuries, let alone ever play hockey again.
Mr. Hockey knew better. While in recovery he reportedly said, “Aw, it’s not all that bad.” Less than four weeks removed from the incident, Howe was back on the ice at The Olympia, albeit in street clothes. Howe, with his shaved head still wrapped in bandages, was welcomed by a roar of cheers as he walked out to touch the Stanley Cup, a prize his teammates managed to claim without their young superstar.
The Red Wings had managed to beat both the Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers in a pair of best-of-seven series with both series going to a winner-take-all Game 7.
The rest of Howe’s story is history. He returned to action at the start of the following season and ultimately played 25 years with the Red Wings, scoring 786 goals and 1,023 assists and leading the team to four Stanley Cup titles. He played in 23 NHL All-Star Games. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the league’s most-valuable player, six times.
Not satisfied to sit on the sidelines, Howe returned to hockey in 1972, one year after his retirement from the NHL. He joined the Houston Aeros of the newly formed World Hockey Association and played six more seasons along his sons, Mark and Marty Howe.
The rival leagues merged in 1979, with Howe’s Hartford Whalers becoming one of four WHA teams to join the NHL. He decided to play one more season. At 52 years old, Howe played all 80 games and recorded 15 goals and 26 assists.
He was the only professional hockey player to play in five different decades and stretched that mark to six when he signed a one-day contract with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997. Howe returned to the ice for one last shift at 69 years old.
Howe ruled the NHL record books when he retired and still remains third on the all-time goals list, passed only by Wayne Gretzky (894) and Alexander Ovechkin (820). However, with his stats from the WHA included, Howe is still the leading goal scorer with 975.
Howe died in 2016 after a long battle with dementia and nearly two years after a debilitating stroke. In the days following his death, the obituaries and tributes flowed. Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp highlighted Howe’s toughness by saying time was the only thing that could slow down Howe.
“There was a veneer of physical indestructibility,” Sharp wrote. “Father Time did what 32 seasons of bloody, bone-crushing professional hockey could not. Render the immortal mortal.”