Gordie Howe, the Toughest Athlete

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National Hockey League All-Star Gordie Howe was arguably the best hockey player ever because he was stronger, faster and more pugnacious than everyone else. He played professional hockey for fifty years. During the 26 years he played in the NHL,
• He led the league in scoring six times and was a top ten scorer in the NHL for an incredible 21 times
• He won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings four times
• He was the NHL’s most valuable player six times
After that, he played in the World Hockey Association and International Hockey League until he was seventy years old. Sadly, both he and his wife died from dementia: she died at age 76 in 2009, most likely from a genetic dementia called fronto-temporal dementia; and he died at age 88 in 2016, most likely from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), brain injury from his many hockey hits (Rehabil Res Pract, July 9, 2012).

Born to Play Hockey
Howe was born in a farmhouse in Saskatchewan, Canada, as one of nine children. He was bigger, stronger and more athletic than all the other kids, and by age eight, he was the best hockey player in his age group. He was a lousy student and quit school during the depression to work with his father in construction. By age 16 he was such an accomplished hockey player that he left Saskatoon to play professional hockey. By age 18, he was the starting right wing for the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL. He was so big, strong and confidant that he got into fights right from the beginning. He fought so many times in his first year that his coach, Jack Adams, told him, “I know you can fight. Now can you show me you can play hockey?” The morning after one of his famous hockey fights, the newspaper headlines read, “Gordie Howe Hat Trick:” a goal, an assist and a fight. He actually did that twice in his brilliant career: October 10, 1953 and March 21, 1954.

Major Injuries
During the 1950 playoffs, the 21-year old suffered the worst injury of his career. He fractured his skull when he checked Toronto Maple Leaf’s captain Ted Kennedy into the boards. He was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery to relieve increasing pressure from bleeding into his brain. He appeared to recover completely and in the following season, he had 86 points in goals and assists, and won the scoring title by 20 points.

Like me, he was an expert on injuries. You probably can’t have an injury that he or I haven’t had, but I got my injuries just from running. Besides the surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, he broke the cartilage in his knee that same year and had to miss the next 20 games of the season. He had multiple surgeries on both knees. He estimated that he had more than 400 stitches in his skin. He broke his nose and ribs several times.

Two Retirements
He retired for the first time at age 43 in 1971. He was immediately inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. At age 45, he joined his sons Mark and Marty on the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, and scored more than 100 points twice in six years. He won two straight Avco World Trophies (1974 and 1975) and was named most valuable player in 1974.

At age 51, he returned to the NHL and played one season for the Hartford Whalers. His second retirement came in 1980 at age 52, after playing for 32 consecutive years from 1946 to 1980, more than any professional athlete in any team sport. At that time, he held nearly every NHL scoring record, including most goals (801), most assists (1,049), and most games played (1,767).

He was still one of the best hockey players in the world, so he had to come back. He continued to play hockey professionally, off and on, for 17 more years until age 69. The only reason he quit then was because he couldn’t walk, even though he could still skate. When you have damaged knees, it hurts every time your foot hits the ground when you walk or run. Skating doesn’t put tremendous force on your knees because your feet glide on the ice, so they strike the ground with minimal force. Howe’s knees hurt so much all the time that he regularly received one hour of special therapy on his knees before each game.

Blocked Arteries and Strokes
At age 74, he became unable to walk 100 yards up a slight incline without having to stop because of chest pains caused by blocked arteries, and he had several stents put into the arteries leading to his heart. He also had episodes of fainting and passing out that sound to me like he had a couple of mini-strokes that most likely destroyed the part of his brain that controls short-term memory.

How could one of the worlds’ greatest life-long athletes suffer heart disease and a stroke? To help prevent heart attacks and strokes, you need to eat an anti-inflammatory diet AND exercise. Heart attacks and 90 percent of strokes are not caused by narrowed arteries. They are caused by sudden complete obstruction of blood flow caused by a plaque breaking off from the inner lining of an artery, bleeding and then clotting that completely blocks the flow of blood. Exercise helps to prevent a clot from breaking off, but it does not prevent plaques from forming in arteries. To help prevent heart attacks and strokes, you have to eat an anti-inflammatory diet to reduce the chances of plaques forming in the first place and then you need to exercise regularly to stabilize plaques in your arteries.

Dementia and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
After that, he suffered from progressively worsening short-term memory loss, difficulty speaking and confusion that was much worse at night. He was reported to have improved after two stem cell treatments in Mexico. At age 86, he suffered a major stroke that paralyzed his right side and prevented him from walking or speaking. Most likely he suffered from vascular dementia in which the blood vessels to his brain were so severely damaged that his brain was damaged also. His dementia progressed and eventually he died at age 88, with the most likely diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), caused by the beatings on his head from playing 51 years of professional hockey. This condition has been diagnosed in many former NFL and NHL players. For a detailed discussion of CTE see John Urschel Quits Football

Protect Your Head and Body When You Play Sports
All sports, particularly professional sports, take their toll. Because athletes often compete when they are injured, they can suffer terrible permanent damage to their bodies and they have more than double the incidence of arthritis and joint replacement surgeries.

If you are an exerciser, learn from Gordie Howe’s story. Plan to exercise a little harder on one day; then on the next day, you will feel sore and should take off, or exercise at a relaxed pace, until your muscles feel completely fresh again. Do not exercise intensely when you feel pain. If you develop permanent joint damage and need joint replacements, you will have no scrapbook of newspaper articles or big paychecks to ease your pain.

Gordie Howe
March 31, 1928 – June 10, 2016