I still get goose bumps when I look at the video 33 years after what may be the greatest spontaneous tribute ever given to a beloved sports figure.
Sitting in the second to the last row of the new opened Joe Louis Arena, I was lucky enough to witness the return to Detroit of arguably the Motor City’s greatest sports figure.
On February 5, 1980, a crowd of 21,002 people, at the time the largest ever to witness a hockey game, jammed into The Joe to watch 51-year old Hartford Whaler right winger Gordie Howe. Playing in his final season he would face 19-year old rookie sensation Wayne Gretzky, who had been selected to his first NHL All-Star contest.
For 25 seasons Howe had starred for the Red Wings while appearing in 22 All-Star games and establishing himself as the all time leading scorer and the greatest all around player in hockey history. A four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Red Wings, Howe won six Hart trophies as the league’s most valuable player and six Art Ross trophies as the leading scorer. After retiring from the Red Wings in 1971 followed by two frustrating years as a club executive, Howe played in the WHA for six years with Houston and the Whalers playing alongside sons Mark and Marty. Hartford joined the NHL for the 1979-80 season.
Although it was the biggest stage that the sport’s two greatest players would ever share, the game will always be remembered for the thunderous standing ovation Detroit fans showered upon Howe, Gretzky’s childhood idol.
For the pre-game introduction, PA announcer John Bell wisely introduced Howe last, but not by name. It was hardly necessary.
“……And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey, the greatest statesman for five decades, number nine!”, Bell announced as the crowd quickly rose to their feet in unison.
Although witnesses said it felt like a twenty minute ovation, the Joe Louis Arena crowd stood and cheered chanting, “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie” for four minutes until Bell interrupted the deafening roar by introducing national anthem singers Roger Doucet and Roger Whitaker.
On the CBC telecast, play-by-play announcer Dan Kelly remarked to color sidekick Dick Irvin, “Well Mr. Irvin, I’d hate to see what happens if that number 9 for the Wales Conference would score a goal. Do you think we’d finish the game?”
“I had the same feelings for the fans as they had towards me” Howe told me in an interview I conducted for a Detroit Free Press article I wrote 25 years after the game.
“I was very emotional and the fans were getting to me, so I skated over to Lefty Wilson (Wing’s trainer) on the bench and asked for help so I would be normal again. Lefty was bilingual, he spoke English and profanity. He said something to me I can’t repeat, and it worked” Howe says smiling. (Legend has it Wilson said to Howe, “Go f… yourself.”)
The man Howe is eternally grateful to is Scotty Bowman, who coached the 1980 Wales Conference All Star squad.
“When Scotty picked me to play he really stuck his nose out because I later learned there was opposition to me playing,” said Howe, who at the All-Star break, had 11 goals. “I have so much respect for that man.”
To this day Bowman insists that “Mr. Hockey” is the greatest to have ever played the game.
In that article in 2005, Bowman said: “I said if Gordie didn’t play I wouldn’t coach. It was a natural for him to play that game in Detroit. I didn’t care what anybody thought. I knew he could still play and it turned out perfect.”
During his record 23rd NHL All-Star game, every time Howe took a shift, the excited crowd cheered and chanted his name hoping to see Number 9 turn the red light on again in Detroit.
Near the end of the first period, Howe received the puck on a silver platter 30 feet at point blank range in front of Campbell Conference goalie Tony Esposito. He fired his patented “snapshot” right at Esposito who stopped the puck as the crowd let out a collective groan. The Blackhawk goalie promptly skated off the ice having been injured on Howe’s still vicious shot.
“I wanted to shoot it low on his stick side but I pulled it,” Howe told me. “I was unhappy with my performance because I missed that goal. I was nervous because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Afterwards I wondered what the crowd would have done had I scored.”
But before the game ended, Howe’s name would be announced on the loudspeaker once again, prompting a thunderous roar.
Just three minutes after Red Wing Reed Larson gave the Wales Conference a 5-3 lead, and with just four minutes remaining in the game, Howe stole the puck twice before threading the needle on his perfect pass from the boards behind the net to Real Cloutier who fired the puck past goalie Pete Peeters. Howe’s last assist in All Star competition capped off a magical evening for the packed crowd.
Wayne Gretzky never figured in the scoring for the Campbell Conference squad that night, but nearly everyone, including Howe, knew they were in the presence of a special player. Although Gretzky would break most of Howe’s NHL records and acquire the nickname, “The Great One”, Mr. Hockey still holds NHL records for games played (1,924), NHL All-Star Game appearances (23) and is tied with Chris Chelios for years played in the NHL. (26).
I hope you enjoy this video of Number 9’s introduction that memorable evening. To jump to his introduction, go to 1:27 of the video.