Before ‘Mr. Hockey,’ Gordie Howe was ‘Mr. Elbows’

This story appears in “Remembering Mr. Hockey,” a special edition of Sportsnet magazine on newsstands this week.

Unlike “Mr. Hockey,” which rings of idealism, sportsmanship and dedication to the craft, Gordie Howe’s first nickname is not trademarked, nor is it nice.

“Mr. Elbows,” as his opponents called him, could have earned a moniker for any of several tell-tale attributes. But the redwood-thick neck, the titanium wrists, the straight stick blade and the brawler’s build all ran runner-up to Howe’s most intimidating properties: windshield wipers he’d switch on and whip about should an enemy be foolish enough to try to steal his puck or ram his shoulder.

“If a guy slashed me,” Howe once explained, “I’d grab his stick, pull him up alongside me and elbow him in the head.”

When you ask anyone who shared the ice with Howe or watched him play, the elbows never fail to warrant a mention. In fact, they only seem to grow in size and status the more people you talk to.

“He’s got more elbows than an octopus. If an octopus has elbows.” —Frank Selke

“You don’t hook him around the ribs from behind or he will most likely take the elbow and knock you out. It’s an elbow that goes from the waist and comes up. It’s pretty scientific.” —Marty Howe

“How vicious he was with his elbows… it was almost anything to win. If you got him good, or you embarrassed him in any way, he was gonna get you. It was only a matter of time before he hurt you. It’s interesting to see that the best player in the world at that time was also one of the meanest. That doesn’t usually happen.” —Curtis Joseph

“I didn’t play against Gordie when he was throwing elbows, and I never got close enough to feel the wrath, either.” —Bryan Trottier

“He’d put his elbows up on purpose just to show people he was rough and tough, but he wasn’t mean or dirty. He was the exact opposite: He cared.” —Walter Gretzky

“One night we were playin’ Detroit in the playoffs, and the puck went into Gordie’s corner in our end. I’m the closest Leaf, so I head for the corner, and I get there the same time as Howe. He runs me into the fence, and I turn around and I whack him across the shins, and he gives me a push back in the shoulders, just misses my head, and I give him another crack. He turns with his elbow and catches me right in the mouth. I say, ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble here.’ I got blood runnin’ down, and I stick my tongue up and the tooth is gone, see. So [referee] Leo Gravelle blows the whistle. And I said, ‘Leo, for God’s sake, that’s a penalty.’ ‘No, no. I didn’t see it.’ I’m bleedin’, eh? I say, ‘Well, look, I gotta try to find that tooth. So Leo says OK. He stopped the game, and for about three or four minutes everybody on both teams is lookin’ for the goddamn tooth. And we never did find it.

“Two or three years later we’re in Detroit. It’s in my corner this time, and Howe comes in behind me, and I touch the puck and pass it over to Jimmy Thomson, and just as I pass the puck Howe plasters me against the boards. So I come out and I give him an elbow right in the middle of the chest, and he gives me an elbow back and there goes another tooth. His elbow came even with my mouth, my elbow went even with his belly button. Over the years I’ve met him once or twice somewhere along the lines. It’s always, ‘Hi, Howie, how are your teeth?’ He’s a great guy.” —Howie Meeker

“My dad would never do that [hit us with his elbows]. I watched them in action a few times, but thank God it wasn’t me. I’ve been quoted many times: ‘He’s the nastiest player on ice I’ve ever seen. But he might be the most gentlemanly person I’ve met in my entire life.’ ” —Mark Howe

“I hope he doesn’t elbow too many angels.” —the celebrant priest at Howe’s funeral

Photo credit: Hockey Hall of Fame great Gordie Howe, left, receives a playful elbow from a fan while taking part in the Pro AM for Alzheimer’s charity event fundraiser in Toronto on May 5, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette