Floral, Saskatchewan is not the kind of place you’d expect to give birth to a god. A scattered unincorporated township just outside Saskatoon, it’s a world of fields, grain elevators, and open space. A loose gathering of farms that someone has ascribed boundaries to on a map.
There has been no post office in Floral since 1923. The grain elevator was demolished in 2003. The community center is one room in a schoolhouse, and the church is dormant. It is the most insignificant of insignificant spots on a map.
Unless you’re a hockey fan.
If you have ever picked up a stick, watched a hockey game or had any connection with the sport whatsoever, Floral is a hockey mecca. One of its holy places. It’s the birthplace of Gordie Howe, one of the greatest hockey players the world has ever seen.
Today, though, came news to break the heart of anyone with even the slightest connection to the game. Gordie Howe, "Mr. Hockey" is dead at the age of 88. There has been a lot of talk the past few years about the death of "old-time hockey". Today, though, the original "old-time hockey" player took his final skate on Earth, and the hockey world is mourning the loss of an icon.
In a storied career spanning six decades, Howe wrote a legendary tale of sound and fury on ice that will never be repeated. Known as much for his nastiness on ice as his ability to put the puck in the net, he was the archetype of the all-around power forward…a player that would make the opposition’s hearts sink and their legs weak by reputation alone.
As comfortable in a scrap as he was with the puck on his stick, Howe did everything. And he did it at full-throttle with a snarl on his lips and a joyful song of chaos in his heart. Over 2,421 pro games in the NHL and WHA, Howe recorded 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists and 2,589 points…totals that have only been surpassed since by a few (goals only by Wayne Gretzky). His number of NHL games played may never be overtaken (the only current player close, Jaromir Jagr, needs over a season-and-a-half’s worth still to catch his number of regular season NHL games alone). He still sits second in goals and fourth in points despite playing in an era when scoring was difficult and checking was tight and vicious.
Ah yes, checking. That was something Howe loved. He often played with an appearance of murder in his heart…elbows flying, body contact relished and with an approach that would likely make the strongest opponent quail. Howe’s physical gifts were legion…at 6’ and 205lbs he was one of the bigger players of his era and embraced the role of battering ram with an almost fanatical fervour.
It was an approach that almost cost him his life-in 1950 an attempt to check the Maple Leafs’ Ted Kennedy going wrong left him with a fractured skull and blood building on his brain…an injury that required emergency surgery to correct. Howe recovered and led the league in scoring the next year as if he’d never missed a beat.
His impact off-ice was just as great as on it…he is a Canadian icon, receiving the Order of Canada, second only to the Order of Merit (personally ordered by Canada’s monarch) in Canadian honours, and a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. He is one of the few hockey players in history to share a line with his son (Mark) in the NHL while playing with the Hartford Whalers late in his career, and his last professional appearance was in 1997, at the age of 69, skating one shift for the IHL’s Detroit Vipers and becoming the first (and likely only) human being to play professional hockey in six decades.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to hockey’s psyche can be seen in the way his name is used…among hockey fans a "Gordie Howe hat-trick" (goal, assist, fight) is a byword and a tribute to his style of play (although Howe himself only ever pulled off the feat a few times in his career). His name is used in the iconic "Slapshot" as a shorthand for "old-time hockey" , and the yell of "GORDIE!" has entered the lexicon as an affectionate tribute from many. He’s even been a Simpsons love interest (under the alias of Woodrow) in one of the series’ most-loved episodes, Bart The Lover.
The sobriquet "Mr. Hockey" was well earned. This was a player who transcended the game…who turned controlled violence into a brutal art form, and who skated like a battering ram into the psyche of a nation.
But more than that…Gordie Howe made people love the game. His calm, humble persona off the ice, constant humour and pure love for what humankind could do with a stick, a puck and a sheet of ice made him a template for hockey players everywhere to follow. He became the personification to many of what made hockey the greatest game on earth, and inspired generation after generation of hockey fans and players across the wide open farmlands of Canada and far, far beyond.
With typical modesty, Howe described himself as "really just a lucky old farm boy".
The luck wasn’t his, however. The luck was ours, to have been able to share this planet with a player whose skill and longevity made him bywords for both in our sport. His number 9 is one of the most hallowed things a player can wear, comparable to the mythical status the number 10 often receives in soccer.
Gordie Howe was a legend, an icon and a shining light of hockey, one of the greatest players ever to strap on a pair of skates. He may have left us today, but his spirit will live wherever there’s frozen ice and a puck heading into the corner…in every battle along the boards, every push and shove, every scrum in front of the net...every second of every hockey game ever played.
Farewell, Mr. Hockey. Wherever you are, may your skates ever be sharp, your passes be tape-to-tape and your shots find only twine.
Goodbye and thank you, Gordie Howe. The hockey world is forever poorer without you.