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Doc Watson: Gordie should be remembered as hockey's greatest

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I understood why the death of “The Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali, captured the attention of our country last week. He was a charismatic personality, king of the heavyweight division of boxing for years and a many-time title holder. He was also a civil rights activist, and that part of his legacy carries much weight, though there’s a small faction of Americans who consider him a draft dodger.

So not to take away from Ali, whom I rooted for in every fight except the ones against Ken Norton, whom I think beat Ali all three times, but I’ve been miffed at how little national media attention has been afforded arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, Gordie Howe.

ESPN, our national TV sports network, has virtually ignored his death. I acknowledge that hockey only had six teams when Gordie started in the NHL, with two of them in Canada, but c’mon now, hockey is one of our country’s four major team sports. Everyone knows, or should know, “Mr. Hockey.”

Gordie Howe played 25 seasons for the Detroit Red Wings, from 1946-1971. I idolized him and got to meet him when I started playing hockey around the age of 10. It was at the Detroit Auto Show, and I stood in line to get an autographed picture of him and a chance to meet him for a few seconds. He joked around – can’t remember what he said – but he was charming, funny and courteous, attributes he shared with everyone he met throughout his life. He never “big timed” anyone, though he probably could have. Anyone who met Gordie came away liking him more than before.

As an adult, I did a half-hour phone interview with him back in the mid-90s when I was a sports talk radio show host in Toledo, Ohio, where he at times lived with son, Murray. I kept thinking that I’ve got to wrap this up – he’s the greatest hockey player that ever lived  – but he kept chatting cordially, going past our planned 10 minute window. I’ve read countless stories about him, and everyone agrees that he made time for all.

The other two players often thrown in the mix as the greatest hockey players of all time, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, have both said this week that Gordie was their top player of all time.

Gordie passed away June 10 at the age of 88. His funeral services are in Detroit Wednesday morning, and there was all-day, 12-hour visitation at Joe Louis Arena today. Both events, of course, are open to the public. As hockey’s greatest all time ambassador, he and his family would have it no other way.

If you’re not a hockey fan, Gordie deserves further investigation. He was not only BETTER than anyone he played against, but he did it LONGER than anyone else, by far. After retiring from the Wings in his early 40s, he came back and played six season with his two sons in the WHA, a rival start-up major league to the NHL, in the 1970s. His last team, the Whalers, merged into the NHL, so he played one final year in the NHL in 1980 at age 52! He notched 41 points that year, the kind of production that today puts you in the top half of a team’s scoring stats.  He played in a shorter season, during a lower-scoring era, yet he’s still second in goals and points all time to Gretzky, who played in a wide-open era with more games.

The guy who gave us “The Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” (a goal, an assist and a fight in one game) made 23 all-star teams and finished in the top 5 in NHL scoring in 20 consecutive seasons. He was a tough, highly skilled, ambidextrous winger who was equally great off ice. Number 9 leaves behind one helluva legacy that won’t ever be matched.

Doc Watson

About the Author
Doc Watson likes to say he's not a real doctor, "but I play one on the radio." A native of Allen Park, Mich., he became a transplanted Peorian in 1996 when he came here to start the Morning Mix TV/radio simulcast show. Now he's a jock with 95.5 GLO and is " happy to be playing the music of my misguided youth." Though known for his voice, he occasionally dabbles with the written word and does that pretty well, too.