Los Angeles (AFP) - Canada's beloved hockey icon Gordie Howe, a fierce competitor who finessed his way into the record books on the ice but was a gentle giant off it, died on Friday at the age of 88.
The Hall of Famer affectionately known as "Mr. Hockey" won four Stanley Cup titles with the Detroit Red Wings in a professional career that spanned an astonishing six decades -- including a cameo appearance with the minor league Detroit Vipers in 1997.
Howe spent a quarter-century with the Red Wings in the National Hockey League, six more seasons playing alongside sons Mark and Marty in the World Hockey Association and a final campaign back in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers at age 52.
"Unfortunately, we lost the greatest hockey player ever today, but more importantly, the nicest man I have ever met," Wayne Gretzky wrote on Twitter of his compatriot and boyhood idol.
"Sending our thoughts and prayers to millions of hockey fans who, like me, loved Gordie Howe. RIP Mr. Hockey."
Howe died in Ohio at the home of his son Murray, who was at his side with other family members. The Red Wings announced Howe's passing on Twitter with a photo and the message: "Thank You Mr. Hockey 1928-2016."
The cause of Howe's death was not immediately known, but he had battled dementia in his later years and suffered a stroke in October of 2014. In recent years the family said Howe's health had improved greatly following stem cell treatment he received in Tijuana, Mexico.
Condolences poured in from all over the world.
"The greatest players define their game for a generation; over more than half a century on the ice, Mr. Hockey defined it for a lifetime," US president Barack Obama said.
- Dedication and passion -
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: "Gordie Howe's skill and toughness, dedication & passion made him one of the greatest in history."
Howe started out as a rough-and tumble Canadian farm boy who grew up during the Great Depression playing hockey on frozen ponds.
People went door-to-door selling sacks of stuff for a dollar and in one of those bags that his parents bought was a pair of skates.
By the time he finished his competitive playing days, most of the NHL's scoring records were owned by Howe.
Ice hockey fans still refer to a player with a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game as having a "Gordie Howe hat trick".
In a record 1,767 NHL games, Howe scored 801 goals, assisted on 1,049 others and accumulated 1,685 penalty minutes.
He won the Art Ross trophy as the NHL's top point producer six times between 1951 and 1963 and the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player six times from 1952 to 1963.
Howe's infirmary list included more than 300 stitches, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a dislocated shoulder and an assortment of scalp wounds.
He had both knees replaced 10 months before a visit to Southeast Asia in 1999.
Howe's biggest rival was ex-Montreal Canadien great Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Howe told an interviewer in 1999 that Richard was envious of Howe's ability to play in six decades.
"Rocket is peed off because he can't do it," Howe said.
Howe did more to advance hockey in the United States than any other player in history. He travelled all over the world and even went to distant places like Hong Kong to promote the game.
"When I heard they played hockey in Hong Kong I had the same reaction as when they started playing hockey in Florida," Howe said.
He remains a revered figure in Detroit with Ron Woods, president of the NFL's Detroit Lions, hailing him as "one of the most iconic, impactful and beloved people our community will ever know."