The 1980 NHL All-Star Game was held on February 5, 1980, at Joe Louis Arena, and it was much more than a the typical All-Star game. First it had the largest crowd to that point to watch an NHL game — as 21,002 were there. Second, all of them gave a four-minute standing ovation for Gordie Howe, who was the last player announced. The chanting of “Gordie, Gordie” continued until the national anthem singers were announced.
This was Gordie Howe’s 23rd, and final, All-Star Game, and the only one in which he was not actually wearing a Detroit Red Wings sweater. Instead, he was representing the Hartford Whalers. Despite having retired in 1971, he’d decided to strap on the skates again in 1973, this time with the World Hockey Association — with whom he played four seasons with the Houston Aeros from the 1973-74 season through the 1976-77 season. The next year found him playing three years with the Hartford Whalers (the first two years under the name New England Whalers before the team became one of the four teams from the WHA to be absorbed by the NHL).
Howe was 51 in that last season with the Hartford Whalers, and in his final All-Star Game. And the hockey world was honoring a player who had begun his NHL career at the age of 18, playing 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings before his brief retirement and then five years with the WHA before retiring once more as an NHL player. Throughout his storied career he set so many records. “Mr. Hockey” played in five different decades and had the opportunity to play with his sons professionally—something that we are unlikely to ever see again given the toll that today’s game of hockey takes on a body, especially with how fast everything is played making hits all the harder.
Throughout his career he would win six Hart Trophies and six Art Ross Trophies. He would score no less than 23 goals in 22 consecutive seasons with the Red Wings. And his name can be found inscribed four times on the Stanley Cup. But like so many of those who are great at their profession or skill, he was a humble individual who loved to put people at ease with his sense of humor, even if his sons didn’t find it quite as funny.
As was shared on the NHL 100 Greatest NHL Players, “In 2012, on his final visit to Montreal, where he played some of his greatest hockey, Howe was having the kind of fun that he’d never deny himself, spinning one wonderful yarn after another. ‘Kids enjoy it when I do this,’ he said with a grin, his tongue pushing roughly half his teeth out of his head. ‘I wish,’ Howe’s son Marty said with a sigh, rolling his eyes, ‘that you wouldn’t do that.’”
And yet, I’m sure that the kids who didn’t understand just how those teeth worked stared in awe and amazement when he did it.
At that same All-Star Game, there was a young player who grew up idolizing Mr. Hockey, who himself would get his own nickname. The Campbell Conference team included a 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky. The “Great One” would go on to break most of Howe’s offensive records.
One has to wonder how the Joe Louis Arena did not implode from the amount of hockey greatness that radiated from those two individuals—let alone all the other talent that was on the ice for that game. And how fortunate were those 21,002 individuals who got to see that game in person.