Gordie Howe, known by many as ‘Mr. Hockey’ passed away at the age of 88 on Friday after suffering from dementia and a series of strokes.
Remembered as one of the best to ever lace them up in the National Hockey League, Howe’s professional career spanned six decades, among them included 25 years as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
After playing another six seasons in the WHA for both the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers, Howe returned to the NHL in 1979-80 with the Hartford Whalers. There, he played alongside two of his sons, Mark and Marty in the NHL.
At 52, Howe was the oldest player to ever play an NHL game. He played in all 80 of the Whalers’ games that season, finishing with 15 goals and 26 assists. Following the conclusion of a first round exit in the playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens, Howe retired from the NHL.
He’d exit the sport with a career that spanned five decades, but at age 69 he added a sixth decade to his legacy filled with longevity, signing a one-day contract with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL.
He took just one shift in the Oct. 3, 1997 game between the Vipers and Kansas City Blades, spending the rest of the game on the bench, interacting with fans and his teammates.
Perhaps no teammate had a better seat in the house for the historic evening than Vipers’ backup goalie, Johan Hedberg.
Hedberg, who until his professional career ended in 2013, was the last active player to have called Howe a teammate.
“I remember the first shift and him lining up at right wing,” Hedberg said. “He won the draw and almost scored. He had a bit of a tough time keeping up with them, but he almost scored.”
Hedberg, who played in 16 games that season for the Vipers, was in his first season of playing North American hockey after spending the prior four seasons with his hometown Leksands, Sweden professional team.
“It was special, especially for me, in my first year,” he said. “You knew who Gordie Howe was and he was special.”
Even if it was nearly 20 years ago, Hedberg still remembers Mr. Hockey on the bench, who was as usual, unselfishly giving his time to everyone.
“He was talking up a storm on the bench,” he said. “He was talking to and waving at fans. It was a little hard cause some guys were trying to concentrate on the ice.”
While Hedberg, who now serves as the goaltending coach for the San Jose Sharks, couldn’t recall much of the conversations he had with Howe, he still remembers the excitement around the arrival of Howe—beginning with his emergence into the locker room.
“He was just really excited,” he said. “We were all excited. There was so much anticipation for it all.”
While Hedberg admitted it would be tough to ever see anyone today have a career that lasted as long as Howe’s, he did note that there’s a common thread between him and some of today’s oldest talents, including his former teammate in Pittsburgh, 44-year-old, Jaromir Jagr.
“They take good care of themselves,” he said. “Maybe Jags’ will still be playing in 10 more years—maybe I can come play with him.”