TORONTO — Throughout his legendary career Gordie Howe looked out for his teammates. It’s only fitting that a smiling statue of the man known as Mr. Hockey now watches over visitors to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hockey’s hallowed shrine celebrated Howe’s career Friday with a permanent statue its entrance. Howe’s sons, Mark and Marty, participated in the unveiling of the figure that measures over 2.4 metres.
“When I was young I’d see all these kids come up to Gordie Howe and he looked like this mountain of a man,” said Mark Howe, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2011. “Now people from of all walks of life are going to come here and see he was truly a mountain of a man.
“For Dad to be honoured this way, he would never say it but, yeah, he deserved it. I think the Hall has done a wonderful thing and Marty and I are glad to be here and try to continue the legacy of Gordie Howe.”
The six-foot, 205-pound native of Floral, Sask., spent 26 seasons in the NHL, playing 1,687 of his 1,767 career games (both league records) with the Detroit Red Wings, who he led to four Stanley Cup titles.
Howe’s 801 goals were the most in NHL history until Wayne Gretzky passed him in 1994 but remain tops among right-wingers. He also amassed 1,850 career points — another league mark that Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr and Mark Messier have since surpassed.
Howe was the first NHL player to play in 1,500 career games, made a record 23 all-star appearances and remains the oldest player to participate in a game (52 years, 11 days).
Howe also spent six seasons in the now-defunct World Hockey Association, playing with his sons with both the Houston Aeros and NHL’s New England Whalers. Howe died June 10, 2016 at age 88.
“We had a tough time during the summer,” Marty Howe said. “I bought bricks for my retaining wall and I did that for a month.
“Afterwards, I settled down and started thinking back on all the things we’ve done, playing hockey, fishing or just going to the beach. This is such a great honour. I’ll visit (Hall of Fame) more now, this is a wonderful gift for the Howe family and Gordie.”
The Hall of Fame also opened the NHL Centennial Exhibition, which pays tribute to the league’s top players and moments from 1917 to 2017. Some featured items include Jacques Plante’s first goalie mask, Howe’s 1960 Hart Trophy plaque, Bobby Orr’s knee brace, the stick and equipment Gretzky wore when he scored his 802nd career goal and the 1917 minute book that defined the birth of the NHL.
“I know Gordie is standing guard and welcoming in these players to this exhibit,” Mark Howe said. “Gordie Howe was a far better person and individual than he ever was as a hockey player.
“I watched him, thousands if not millions of times, greet people from all walks of life and especially kids. I think it’s so fitting that he’ll be at the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame welcoming people with open arms like he did his whole life.”
Lanny McDonald, a 1992 Hall of Fame inductee who’s now the shrine’s chairman, said it was hard not to be in awe of Howe on the ice.
“I was always disappointed Jean Beliveau retired just before I started playing,” McDonald said. “Gordie was one of my heroes from the time I was a little boy and to have a chance to play against him was an honour.
“I remember playing against him in 1979 at Maple Leafs Gardens (when Howe was with New England) and (Leafs’ goalie) Mike Palmateer always thought he had a great glove. But this time Gordie got the puck and when the crowd roared, Palmie realized, ‘Oh my gosh, the puck’s behind me.’ It was perfect.”
So, too, was the response by McDonald and his teammates.
“Our entire bench stood up as one to celebrate not only a great goal but a great player,” McDonald said. “Then we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s on the other team.’
“Our coach Red Kelly said, ‘It’s OK, I would’ve stood to but I’m already standing.”’
Marty Howe said as fun-loving as his father could be away from hockey, he transformed into someone different upon lacing up his skates.
“He wasn’t the same guy, he had a little bit of a mean streak in him,” he said. “He had a few rules: don’t take the puck away from him don’t make him look bad and don’t hook him around the ribs … otherwise his stick would be flying around somewhere and you’d get to visit the doctor.
“You wanted him on your team.”
Mark Howe, who assisted on his father’s final NHL goal, attended Friday’s event minus his Hall of Fame jacket and ring.
“Today is about Gordie Howe and the respect we have for our father, it has nothing to do with me,” he said. “I think that’s the way we were brought up by our parents, to be humble, to be grateful.
“It’s pretty awesome. One day when I get to come here and there’s no cameras, no media, no fanfare I can just relax and enjoy it, maybe then I’ll be able to grasp it more.”