Howe is most famous for his scoring prowess, physical strength, and career longevity. He is the only player to have competed in the NHL in five (1940s through 1980s) different decades. A four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Red Wings, he won six Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player and six Art Ross Trophies as the leading scorer. He was the recipient of the first NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Howe was also referred to during his career as Power, Mr. Everything, Mr. All-Star, The Most, The Great Gordie, The King of Hockey, The Legend, The Man, No. 9, and "Mr. Elbows" (for his tough physical play). His name and nickname, "Mr. Hockey", as well as his wife's nickname as "Mrs. Hockey", are registered trademarks.
Howe was born to parents Ab and Kate Howe in a farmhouse in Floral, Saskatchewan – one of nine children. When Gordie was nine days old, the Howes moved to Saskatoon, where his father worked as a labourer during the Depression. In the summers, Howe would work construction with his father. Howe was mildly dyslexic growing up, but was physically beyond his years at an early age. He began playing organized hockey at 8 years old, then left Saskatoon at 16 to pursue his hockey career.
Howe was an ambidextrous player, able to use the straight sticks of his era to shoot left or right-handed. He received his first taste of pro experience at fifteen years old when he was invited to a tryout for the New York Rangers in Brooklyn, but he did not make the team. A year later, he was noticed by Detroit Red Wings scout Fred Pinckney. He was signed by the Red Wings and assigned to their junior team in Galt, Ontario. However, due to a maximum amount of Western players allowed by the league and a preference to develop older players by the Red Wings, Howe's playing time with the team was initially limited.
Howe made his NHL debut in 1946 at the age of 18, playing right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, for which he wore #17 as a rookie. When Roy Conacher moved on to the Chicago Black Hawks after the 1946–47 season, however, Howe was offered Conacher's #9 which he would wear for the rest of his career.
Howe led Detroit to four Stanley Cups and to first place in regular season play for seven consecutive years (1948–49 to 1955–56), a feat never equaled in NHL history. During this time Howe and his linemates, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, were known collectively as "The Production Line", both for their scoring and as an allusion to Detroit auto factories. The trio dominated the league in such a fashion that in 1949–50, they finished one-two-three in league scoring.
The Red Wings were consistently contenders throughout the 1950s and early 1960s but began to slump in the late 60s. When Howe turned 40, in 1967–68, the league expanded from six to twelve teams and the number of scoring opportunities grew as the game schedule increased. Howe played the 1968–69 season on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich. Mahovlich was big, fast, and skilled, and Delvecchio was a gifted playmaker. The three were dubbed "The Production Line 3" and at forty-years-old, Howe reached new scoring heights, topping 100 points for the only time of his NHL career with 44 goals and a career-high 59 assists.
Howe remained with the Red Wings for two more seasons, but after twenty-five years, a chronic wrist problem forced him to retire after the 1970–71 season and he took a job in the Red Wings front office. At the beginning of 1972, he was offered the job as first head coach of the New York Islanders, but turned it down.
A year later, he was offered a contract to play with the Houston Aeros of the newly formed World Hockey Association, who had also signed his sons Mark and Marty to contracts. Dissatisfied with not having any meaningful influence in the Red Wings' office, he underwent an operation to improve his wrist and make a return to hockey possible, and he led his new team to consecutive championships. In 1974, at the age of 46, Howe won the Gary L. Davidson Trophy, awarded to the WHA's most valuable player (the trophy was renamed the Gordie Howe Trophy the following year). Howe played with the Aeros until 1977, when he and his sons joined the New England Whalers.
When the WHA folded in 1979, the renamed Hartford Whalers joined the NHL. While the Red Wings still held his NHL rights even though he'd retired eight years earlier, the Whalers and Red Wings reached a gentlemen's agreement in which the Red Wings agreed not to reclaim him. The 51-year-old Howe signed on for one final season playing in all 80 games of the schedule, helping his team to make the playoffs with fifteen goals. One particular honor was when Howe, Phil Esposito, and Jean Ratelle were selected to the mid-season all-star game by coach Scotty Bowman, as a nod to their storied careers before they retired. Howe had played in five decades of all-star games and he would skate alongside the second-youngest to ever play in the game, 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky. The Joe Louis Arena crowd gave him a standing ovation twice, lasting so long, he had to skate to the bench to stop people from cheering. He had one assist in the Whalers' 6–3 win.
Howe became good friends with Wayne Gretzky, who had idolized Howe as a young player, and who would later break many of Howe's scoring records and milestones.
Another milestone in a remarkable career was reached in 1997 when Howe played professional hockey in a sixth decade. He was signed to a one-game contract by the Detroit Vipers of the IHL and, almost 70-years-old, made a return to the ice for one shift. In doing so, he became the only player in hockey history to compete in six different decades at the professional level, having played in the NHL, WHA and IHL from the 1940s to 1990s.
At the time of his retirement, Howe's professional totals, including playoffs, for the NHL and WHA combined, were first. He finished with 2,421 games played, 1,071 goals, 1,518 assists, and 2,589 points. Wayne Gretzky has since passed him in goals (1,072), assists (2,297), and points (3,369), but not games played (1,767) or games played with one team (1,687). It is unlikely that anyone will surpass Howe's total professional games played.