Commentary

As Howe turns 80, we celebrate Mr. Hockey's storied moments

Updated: March 31, 2008, 12:39 PM ET
By David Amber | Special to ESPN.com

Gordie Howe left a lasting impression on his opponents and an indelible mark on the hockey world. His sheer skill, brute power and unparalleled longevity made him one of the greatest hockey players ever.

As he celebrates his 80th birthday Monday, we take a look at 10 of Howe's most distinguished moments.

[+] EnlargeGordie Howe
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesDuring the 1951-52 season, Gordie Howe had 47 goals and 86 points in 70 games as Detroit went a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs to sweep Montreal en route to the Stanley Cup.

10. Toughness

As much as Howe is remembered for his scoring touch, he is widely considered one of the toughest players to skate in the NHL. He entered the league a hulking 6-foot-1, 205-pound teenager in an era that most players were much smaller; he left the league a grandfather who had collected his share of war wounds. In 32 seasons of professional hockey, Howe received more than 300 stitches and suffered damaged knee cartilage, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a dislocated shoulder and a fractured skull. Howe's ability to endure pain was matched by his ability to administer it. On Feb. 1, 1959, in a game against the Rangers, Howe cemented his place as one of the game's top pugilists after he was sucker-punched by enforcer Lou Fontinato. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with a notorious mean streak, Fontinato was considered the league's toughest player. Not on this night. With a series of punches, Howe broke Fontinato's nose, bloodied his face and left him crumpled on the ice.

9. A season to remember
It's hard to pick out a best season for Howe -- this is a six-time MVP we're talking about. But perhaps the greatest of them all was the 1951-52 season. The 23-year-old led the NHL in goals (47) and points (86) as Detroit went a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs to sweep its way past the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup. Howe won the scoring title by 17 points over linemate Ted Lindsay and scored twice in his Stanley Cup finals debut to earn league MVP honors. Not bad for six months' work.

8. Should have been a Broadway star
The New York Rangers' 54-year Stanley Cup drought from 1940 to 1994 might not have happened if a 15-year-old Howe didn't get homesick. In 1943, the Rangers gave Howe a tryout at their training camp in Winnipeg. Less than two weeks in, Howe got homesick and went back to his family in Saskatchewan. The Rangers gave up on the hulking teenager, thinking he didn't have the ambition to make it to the NHL. The following year, a Red Wings scout invited Howe to try out for Detroit at the Wings' training camp in Windsor, Ontario. This time, Howe made a great impression. He left camp with a contract and, about two years later, entered the NHL at age 18. Howe eventually led the Wings to four Stanley Cups and seven straight regular-season first-place finishes, while the Rangers continued to be a Cup flop well past Howe's retirement in 1980.

7. A near miss
Howe was at the center of one of the scariest on-ice incidents in NHL history. On March 28, 1950, during the Red Wings' opening game of the playoffs against the Maple Leafs, Ted Kennedy avoided a check from Howe, who stopped suddenly and crashed headfirst into the boards. Howe was knocked unconscious, suffered a fractured skull and needed emergency surgery. Howe's family was called to the hospital, fearing the injuries could be life-threatening. Doctors expected Howe's hockey career to be over. But Howe returned the following season and led the league in scoring by 20 points, the first of four straight scoring titles. The incident left Howe with a facial tic and earned him the nickname "Blinky" from his teammates.

6. The Gordie Howe hat trick
When fans, players or the media today refer to a "Gordie Howe hat trick," we all know it refers to when a player had a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Ironically, though he played more than 2,000 games, Howe had only one of these hat tricks (Dec. 22, 1955), according to several documented sources. By comparison, Brendan Shanahan, a tough customer in his own right, has recorded 17 "Howe hat tricks." Historians argue Howe established himself as such a skilled fighter in his early playing days that no one would drop the gloves with him for the majority of his career.

5. The rivalry
Today, we are witnessing the evolution of "Sid the Kid" versus "Alexander the Great." We already have witnessed "Super Mario" versus "The Great One." Years earlier, it was "Mr. Hockey" versus "The Rocket." For 14 seasons, Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Howe both skated in the NHL, battling for Stanley Cups and recognition as the game's best player. The battle began in Howe's rookie season when Richard challenged him to a fight in Howe's first game at the Montreal Forum.

Just a teenager, Howe didn't back down; in fact, he knocked out Richard with one punch. Years later, Howe would knock Richard out of the record books as well. On Jan. 16, 1960, Howe had a goal and an assist to pass Richard as the NHL's all-time leading scorer. He later scored his 545th career goal (Nov. 10, 1963) to pass Richard as the most prolific goal scorer in the game.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesWayne Gretzky passed Gordie Howe's all-time NHL points mark on Oct. 15, 1989.

4. Milestones
Before Howe was No. 9 for the Red Wings, he wore No. 17. At 18, Howe made his NHL debut in 1946 and showcased his skill and grit from the get-go. Howe scored in his first game, a sign of things to come. Though Wayne Gretzky owns the majority of the meaningful NHL records, it was Mr. Hockey who blazed the trail and gave The Great One something to shoot for. On Dec. 7, 1977, as a member of the New England Whalers, Howe scored his 1,000th career pro goal. He scored against John Garrett of the Birmingham Bulls.

In total, including playoffs, Howe appeared in 1,924 NHL games, collecting 869 goals and 1,141 assists for 2,010 points. If you include his WHA numbers, his pro totals are 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists for 2,589 points. No one, including Gretzky, ever scored more regular-season pro goals than Howe's 975.

One record that is sure to stand is that Howe has played professional hockey in six different decades. In 1997, at the age of 69, he signed a one-game contract with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL. He played one shift and didn't score, but he stayed out of the penalty box.

3. WHA experience
After the 1971 season, his 25th in the NHL, Howe retired with a serious wrist injury. Two-and-a-half years later, on a surgically repaired wrist, he was back on the ice in the World Hockey Association (WHA), playing with sons Marty and Mark for the Houston Aeros. The three Howes played on the same line. That first season, the elder Howe collected 100 points in 70 games, leading Houston to its first of back-to-back championships. The 46-year-old won the Gary L. Davidson Trophy as league MVP. The following season, the MVP award was renamed the Gordie Howe Trophy.

2. The all-time All-Star
Howe has a league-record 23 NHL All-Star Game appearances, scoring 10 goals in games spanning four decades. His first All-Star Game was in 1948 and, in typical fashion, he got into a fight. Howe's most memorable All-Star experience was in 1980 in Detroit. Playing with the Hartford Whalers in his final NHL season at age 51, Howe was named to the team by Scotty Bowman. Howe received two standing ovations at Joe Louis Arena, one when he was introduced and the other after he assisted on a goal in his Wales Conference's 6-3 win over the Campbell Conference.

Howe also was a two-time WHA All-Star, including the 1979 series that pitted the WHA against the Moscow Dynamo. Howe played on a line with son Mark and the 17-year-old phenom Gretzky. The trio combined for seven points in Game 1 as the WHA All-Stars swept the three-game series.

1. Longevity
Whether Howe is the game's greatest player is debatable. What can't be argued is his unmatched longevity. The numbers are eye-popping. More than 2,000 professional games played, more than 1,000 goals scored and more than 1,500 career assists accumulated. A six-time NHL scoring champ, Howe finished in the top five in league scoring for 20 straight seasons. The six-time MVP is a member of 11 different Hall of Fames, giving recognition to the fact he dominated three eras of hockey -- the post-war era of the late 1940s, the Golden Era of the 1950s and '60s and the post-expansion era following 1967. Howe's final professional game (not including that shift with the Vipers in 1997) was April 11, 1980, when the Canadiens eliminated the Whalers from the playoffs. Howe was 52 years and 11 days old, finishing a pro hockey journey that began more than 34 years earlier.

ESPN reporter David Amber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.