Los Angeles (AFP) - Gordie Howe, the NHL Hall of Famer known as "Mr Hockey," spread the gospel of the game beyond the borders of his native Canada in a brilliant pro career that spanned six decades.
Howe, who died on Friday at the age of 88, earned the all-embracing nickname thanks to his longevity, toughness, scoring prowess -- and an easy-going nature off the ice that helped popularize the sport in non-traditional hockey markets like Texas.
When he retired from the Detroit Red Wings, Howe was considered the greatest NHL player of all-time, and in 1998, The Hockey News ranked Howe third overall on their list of the top 100 players in history, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.
Howe played 25 seasons (1946-71) with the Red Wings, won four Stanley Cups, six Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player and six Art Ross Trophies as the National Hockey League's leading scorer.
With Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, and later Alex Delvecchio and Lindsay, Howe comprised "The Production Line," the most potent offensive scoring unit in the NHL from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s.
Howe also played long enough to suit up on the same line with his two grown sons, Mark and Marty.
When he retired, he owned a wealth of records and at his death still held several, including those for NHL games played (1,767), most NHL and World Hockey Association games played (2,186) and most NHL All-Star Game appearances (23).
During his time in the NHL, he scored 801 goals with 1,049 assists, adding 174 goals and 334 assists in the WHA.
- Games over six decades -
The Saskatchewan native suffered a career-threatening injury during the 1950 playoffs.
While attempting to check Toronto's Ted Kennedy into the boards, Howe hit his head and suffered a fractured skull.
He was rushed to hospital where doctors operated to relieve pressure on his brain. But Howe returned the next season, compiling 86 points to win the scoring title by 20 points.
Howe came out of retirement in 1973 to play with the Houston Aeros of the newly formed World Hockey Association.
It was with the Aeros and later the New England Whalers that Howe got the chance to play on a line with his sons Mark -- another Hall of Famer -- and Marty.
He was still playing professionally at age 51 when the team joined the NHL, changing their name to the Hartford Whalers.
In 1997, Howe signed a one-game contract with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League at almost 70 years of age.
In doing so, he became the only player in history to play pro hockey in six different decades.
Howe had endured a series of health issues in his later years.
He had both left and right knee replacement surgery in the late 1990s, and by 2014 had ceased granting interviews as he coped with dementia.
A serious stroke in October 2014 weakened his right side and affected his ability to speak. Prior to that, he had made a good recovery from spinal surgery earlier in the year.
- 'Gordie Howe hat trick' -
Howe, the son of a Canadian farmer and laborer, was born on March 31, 1928 in Floral, Saskatchewan, but the family moved to Saskatoon when he was just nine days old.
He was physically bigger than other kids his age, which helped him when he began playing youth hockey at the age of eight.
He made his NHL debut with the Red Wings on October 16, 1946 at 18.
On the ice, Howe was known for his toughness as well as his skills. He played in an era where fighting was more acceptable than it is today and to this day, a goal, assist and fight in the same game is known as a "Gordie Howe hat trick."
Howe's biggest rival was Montreal Canadiens great Maurice Richard, and Howe was never shy about stating a dislike for "The Rocket."
Howe's wife, Colleen, who also did much promote the sport, died in 2009. Other than Mark and Marty, they had two other children -- Murray and Cathy.