Gordie Howe worked all his life to earn the respect and awe that came with being "Mr. Hockey."
The Canadian farm boy who developed his brute strength and impressive stamina on the Saskatchewan prairie could put his team ahead with a timely goal or even the score with opponents by throwing his elbows and fists. Away from the rink, he worked just as hard to become one of the most likable superstars in any sport.
His boundless blend of talent and toughness made him the NHL's quintessential star during a storied career that lasted into his 50s. He died Friday at 88 after a career that included four Stanley Cup championships and respect across the league.
He died "peacefully … with his family by his side," a statement from the family said. His son Murray said his father died simply of "old age."
The Red Wings, Mr. Howe's longtime team, said he died in Sylvania, Ohio, at Murray's home.
Mr. Howe shattered records, dropped gloves and threw elbows while helping the Red Wings win those four championships. He became an idol for many and is credited with helping the sport attract American fans in a development key to the league's growth.
His ability to skate, shoot and pass made him a threat every time he had the puck. No one could match Mr. Howe's style of play, Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said. "I call him the best player of all time,'' Bowman told Canada's TSN TV network.
Among the NHL records the Hall of Fame forward set in his 26-year career were 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — both of which held up until Wayne Gretzky came along.
"I got to meet him when I was 10 years old," said Gretzky, 55, who had 894 goals and 2,857 points. "And when you're 10 years old, a lot of times you meet your idol and they're not as nice or as big as you think. … I was lucky that I picked the right person to look up to."
Mr. Howe still owns or shares 19 league records, Canada's Sportsnet TV network said.
He began playing for the Red Wings in 1946 at age 18, leading them to seven straight first-place finishes in the regular season. He was a part of what was known as the "Production Line" with future Hall of Famers Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel during his 25-year run with the franchise.
"No one in their right mind ever wanted to tangle with him," Lindsay has said. "Gordie had a lethal pair of elbows, was strong as a moose and knew every angle."
Mr. Howe was so talented and tough that a "Gordie Howe hat trick" became synonymous with the combination of having a goal, an assist and a fight in one game, though no one is certain how his name got attached to the feat. His first such hat trick came Oct. 11, 1953, when he scored, assisted on Red Kelly's tally and fought the Maple Leafs' Fernie Flaman, all in the first period. He had only two more.
Even after he moved on from the Red Wings — into retirement in 1971 at 43, a return to hockey in the WHA in 1973 at 45 to live his dream of playing professionally with sons Mark and Marty, and one last NHL season in 1979-80 when his WHA Whalers joined the league in a merger — he stayed close to Detroit.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, a former Red Wings captain who played his entire 22-year NHL career in Detroit and later worked in its front office, said "it was an honor to wear the same uniform, spend time with, laugh, joke and seek advice" from Mr. Howe.
"Gordie's humility and kindness left a permanent impression on me, greatly influencing how I tried to conduct myself throughout my career," Yzerman said in a statement.
When Mr. Howe retired for good in 1981, he was 52 and had been the oldest player to play in an NHL game, at 52 years, 10 days. With a single shift with Detroit in the International Hockey League in 1997, he played professionally in a sixth decade at age 69.
Mr. Howe had a stroke in October 2014, losing some function on the right side of his body. He suffered another stroke a short time later, and family members said chronic back pain, advanced stages of dementia and high blood pressure were taking a toll. In December 2014, Mr. Howe participated in a stem-cell clinical trial in Mexico, which the family credited with helping him walk and do some of things he enjoyed, including making people laugh. The year before starting stem cell therapy, Mr. Howe had told his family he wanted to die.
He was most proud of his family. He raved about his wife, Colleen, whom he married in 1953 and with whom he had three sons and daughter Cathy. They became personal and professional partners promoting Gordie and hockey. She died in March 2009.
When asked about his legacy by the Associated Press in 2011, Mr. Howe said he was most proud of playing with his sons for five years.