Howes journey to NHL immortality started 75 years ago with Red Wings

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It wasn’t hockey.

Early in training camp for that 1946-47 season, Howe had been introduced to the game of cribbage by Detroit Red Wings teammates. Now skating to the Olympia Stadium bench after warmups for the Red Wings’ season opener against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, the fresh-faced rookie was contemplating hands of cards.

“I was still busy counting crib hands in my head — 15-2, 15-4, 15-6 — when I heard Mr. Adams yell, ‘Sid, Adam, and Howe!’ I had no clue I’d be on the top line,” Howe remembered in “Mr. Hockey: Gordie Howe — My Story,” his 2014 autobiography. “I didn’t have enough time to get nervous before the puck dropped.”

Video: Gordie Howe, ‘Mr. Hockey,’ enjoyed five-decade career

Red Wings coach and general manager Jack Adams sent center Sid Abel, left wing Adam Brown and right wing Howe out for the opening face-off.

A native of Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe had arrived in Detroit with one year of professional hockey to his name, having scored 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 51 games with Omaha in 1945-46. His United States Hockey League contract of $2,700 had been bumped by Adams to $5,000 for 1946-47, $3,500 if he was returned to the minors.

“That may seem like a ridiculous sum by today’s standards,” Howe said in 1999. “But it was about standard for a rookie at the time, and certainly far more than I, or my father, had ever earned.”

A signing bonus — a Red Wings jacket that Howe had coveted — was late in coming. Only after timidly reminding Adams about it was he given the go-ahead to pick one out, escorted on a shopping trip by teammates Ted Lindsay and Marty Pavelich.

Rookie Gordie Howe takes a tumble between two Toronto players on Dec. 19, 1946 at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was Howe’s 26th NHL game.

“The material was smooth on the outside, like satin, and it had leather sleeves with ‘Red Wings’ written on it,” he remembered. “Every time I put on that sharp-looking jacket, I felt a bit more like I belonged.”

Over the next quarter-century with the Red Wings, Howe would become known as Mr. Hockey, his remarkable feats still the thing of legend more than five years after his death June 10, 2016 at the age of 88. 

His career spanned 32 seasons — 26 in the NHL, six in the WHA — with a one-game contract signed Oct. 3, 1997 with Detroit of the International Hockey League seeing him become the first player to skate in six decades.

Howe’s honor roll, in part: four Stanley Cup championships won with the Red Wings; Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 1972; 23 NHL All-Star Game appearances; six Hart Trophy and six Art Ross Trophy wins, as the NHL’s most valuable player and top point-scorer, respectively; 22 consecutive NHL seasons of scoring at least 23 goals; top five in NHL scoring for 20 consecutive seasons, between 1949-69; countless off-ice honors that include bridges, arenas and buildings named for him.

Gordie Howe dresses for a 1958 game, and in a 1969-70 portrait that served as the photo for his O-Pee-Chee hockey card that season.

Howe was the first NHL player to reach 1,000 points and would retire from the Hartford Whalers in 1980, at age 52, as the League’s all-time leader in games played with 1,767 (now ranked second to the 1,779 of Patrick Marleau); goals with 801 (now second to Wayne Gretzky’s 894); assists with 1,049 (now 10th, Gretzky ranked first with 1,963); and points with 1,850 (now fourth; Gretzky ranked first with 2,857).

Seventy-five years ago on Oct. 16, skating with Abel and Brown, Howe has said he felt “uncharacteristically calm as the puck was about to drop on the biggest game of my life,” stunned that Adams would put him on the Red Wings’ top line.

He played his first game wearing No. 17, veteran forward Roy Conacher in the No. 9 that Howe would claim the following season when Conacher was traded to the Chicago Black Hawks; a lower sweater number offered a player a preferred lower berth on overnight road trips by rail.

A crowd of 12,756 nearly lifted the roof off the Olympia when Brown opened the scoring, assisted by Abel, at 7:02 of the first period. Toronto’s Bob Goldham tied it up not quite six minutes later, setting the stage for Howe’s first NHL goal, coming at 13:39 of the second period against legendary Toronto goalie Turk Broda. 

The scoresheet of Gordie Howe’s first NHL game, which included his first of 801 career goals, and Howe as a 1946-47 rookie.

As a youth in Saskatoon, Howe had cherished his Bee Hive photos of Broda and others, a prized collectible obtained by mailing a corn syrup proof of purchase for an NHL star’s picture.

“Turk was a heavy-set guy compared to today’s goalies but he could really move and nothing scared him,” Howe recalled. “With the puck lying loose about eight feet in front of the net, I took a swipe at it, sending it over Broda and into the net. … At that moment I wasn’t thinking about my collection of Broda Bee Hive photos, I just wanted to find a way to beat him. It wasn’t the prettiest goal I ever scored, but they all count.”

Abel would tie the game 3-3 with 11 seconds left, Detroit goalie Harry Lumley pulled for a sixth skater.

Midway through the third, Howe and Toronto’s Bill Ezinicki tangled to draw coincidental minors, the first of Howe’s 1,685 career penalty minutes. His next game, three nights later in Toronto, he and Ezinicki fought, Howe earning his first career major.

Gordie Howe in a classic Detroit Red Wings portrait, and during a break in an early 1960s game, talking with goalie Terry Sawchuk.

“I was determined to contribute however I could,” he would say. “I figured that if dropping the gloves was what got me from Omaha to Detroit, it would probably help keep me there as well. In 1946, I was just a no-name rookie, but I didn’t care. If anyone got into it with a teammate, I was going to look him up and that’s where my thinking stopped.”

Detroit’s youngest player, Howe drew raves for the calm he showed in his NHL debut.

“Gordon Howe is the squad’s baby, 18 years old,” one newspaper report read. “But he was one of Detroit’s most valuable men last night. In his first major-league game, he scored a goal, skated tirelessly and had perfect poise.”

Howe figured that the line with Abel and Brown would be kept intact, but Adams had other ideas.

“(Adams) dropped me from that line, and I saw the ice only sporadically from then on,” said Howe, who early in his career threw his fists at any challenger until his boss told him he was more valuable on the ice than in the penalty box. “It took nine more games to score my second goal and another 11 after that to score my third. …

Gordie Howe (left) with Sid Abel (center) and Ted Lindsay in 1948. The three would become known as the Production Line.

Howe finished his rookie season with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) and 52 penalty minutes, playing in 58 of Detroit’s 60 games. 

He is in every discussion about the greatest NHL player of all time. Forever, Gretzky has said that Mr. Hockey, a dear friend, leads his list.

“The greatest player ever. I say this all the time,” Gretzky said in June 2016 at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, having paid his respects to Howe at the latter’s public visitation. “Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe, pick who you think is better. I happen to be a little biased. I was a forward, so I’ll take Gordie. But more importantly he was the nicest man I ever met.”

Gordie Howe wards off Toronto defenseman Pat Quinn behind goalie Bruce Gamble during a Jan. 18, 1969 game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Other players, from left: Alex Delvecchio, Dave Keon and Murray Oliver.

Among the most durable players to ever lace up, Howe’s bumps and bruises were catalogued, probably an incomplete list, by author and hockey historian Brian McFarlane in his 1998 book “The Red Wings”: broken wrist, fingers, ribs, collarbone (undiagnosed for a year), toe (by a Bobby Hull slap shot), nose (14 times), cheekbone and foot; carpal tunnel surgery; severe concussion; hernia; torn knee cartilage; about 500 stitches to the face.

“You’ve got to love what you’re doing,” Howe once said. “If you love it, you can overcome any handicap or the soreness or all the aches and pains and continue to play for a long, long time.”

For Mr. Hockey, the rugged, historic journey to hockey immortality began 75 years ago with his first game.

“I didn’t have high expectations for my career at that point,” he said. “I just wanted to stick around for a full season so I could say that I played a year in the big leagues. After I scored, I thought I’d be in the record books, at the very least.”

Photos: Turofsky and Graphic Artists, Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images

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