Both wore #9 on their uniform sweaters. Both were hard-nosed competitors from Canada. Both were superb skaters who could handle a hockey stick like a magician waved a wand. Both were heroes to the fans in their hockey-crazed cities. During their primes they fought each other, battled each other for supremacy of their sport, and held a grudge against one another that often erupted into violence.
Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard were two of the greatest hockey players to ever lace on skates. Like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson they fed off each other, pushing each other to reach heights few other athletes have ever known.
Though they shared much in common, there were some marked differences between the two stars. Richard was a French Canadian, born in Montreal, Quebec. He had a flare on the ice and exhibited such remarkable bursts of speed and a strong slap shot that he earned the nickname “The Rocket”. He also had a nasty temper that occasionally proved to be a flaw on the ice. More than once he skated out of his way to deliver a retaliatory blow, only to put himself in a bad defensive position. Richard lost his cool more than Gordie.
Howe was a “country Canadian”, born in Saskatchewan. He was a full three inches taller than Richard, and seven years younger. Howe was not as naturally fast or adept at scoring as Richard, but he was amazingly talented at every phase of the game and consistently brilliant. For two decades he dominated the game like no other player – finishing in the top five in scoring every season for 20 years. Whereas Richard made dozens of plays every year that no one had ever seen before, Howe was exceptional and efficient game after game, night after night, season after season. He never seemed to wear down or tire of being unstoppable.
Richard was the first player to do things no one thought were possible – he scored 50 goals in 50 games. Howe was the first hockey player to do everything without flaw on the ice: he was a scoring threat, a gifted passer, a bruiser, and a fighter.
In their first matchup in the NHL, in 1946, Richard welcomed the 18-year old Howe with a hard check and an elbow to the chin. Later in that shift, the teenager Gordie decked Maurice with a right cross, knocking the older player out cold.
In the 15 seasons that the two were in the NHL together, their teams won the Cup 11 times. Howe led the league in scoring five times during that stretch, but Richard was a more selfish offensive player. He led the NHL in goals five times. Howe was part of Detroit’s famed “Production Line” with Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. Richard, like Howe a right-winger, teamed with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake on Montreal’s “Punch Line”.
On four occasions, Howe’s Wings clashed with Richard and the Canadians in the Stanley Cup Finals, all of them within a five-year period from 1952-1956. Those were titanic battles between two teams loaded with Hall of Fame talent, but the most watched battle was the matchup of Howe v. Richard. The master goal scorer versus the younger “Mr. Hockey.”
Howe got the better of the original #9 in their marquee matchups, much to the chagrin of “The Rocket”, who was used to having his way in the Finals. Richard’s team was 7-2 in Stanley Cup Finals when they weren’t facing the Red Wings, but a dismal 1-3 against Howe and Detroit.
In ’54 as well as in ’55, the Wings beat Richard and Montreal in a decisive Game Seven. In ’54 it was Tony Leswick – known as “Mighty Mouse” because of his tiny stature – who vanquished the Habs with a bizarre goal 4 minutes and 29 seconds into overtime at Olympia Stadium. His shot bounced off the glove of Montreal goalie Doug Harvey and freakishly dribbled into the net. The Canadians were stunned and so irritated by the fluke goal that they skated off the ice without shaking hands with the Red Wings.
The following year, it was Howe’s wrister in the second period that gave the Wings a 2-1 lead they never relinquished. In that series, Richard sat out after being suspended for an incident earlier in the season. His absence seemed to propel Howe, who set an NHL record by scoring 12 points in the seven games. It was Detroit’s fourth Cup title in six seasons, three of them coming at the hands of the Canadians. The Wings would not raise the Cup again for 42 years.
The following season, in 1956, the two teams met for a third consecutive time in the Stanley Cup Finals. That time, Richard and the Habs dominated the Wings, beating them in five games. It was the first of five straight titles for the Canadians. When they lifted the cup in 1960 for a fifth straight time, it was the final game of The Rocket’s career.
But Howe played for two more decades after Richard’s retirement. He broke all of The Rocket’s record, putting up numbers that no one had ever dared to dream of. Only Wayne Gretzky’s remarkable talent erased some of Howe’s seemingly unbreakable records.
Who was better, Howe or Richard? It’s difficult to choose among the two. Both are legends whose faces belong on the Mt. Rushmore of Hockey (carved in ice?). For extended brilliance, consistency and durability, Howe was the man. For clutch play, daring skating and goal scoring, Richard was supreme.
Both were legendary players, and without each other to compete against, they likely wouldn’t have achieved quite as much.