Joe Watson Recalls First Encounter With Late Hockey Great Gordie Howe

Joe Watson remembers his first game against the legendary Gordie Howe: Boston Garden on Oct. 19, 1966. Season opener.

“A puck goes into the corner and when I get it, somebody hits me really hard, ‘oh my God, that hurt,’ ” Watson recalled.

“My natural reaction was to turn around and elbow the guy. Which I did. I go back to the bench and Bobby Orr says to me, ‘you’re gonna pay for that.’ It was Howe.

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“So in the second period, we were fighting for position in front of the net. Gordie got me right in my nose. Broke my nose with his elbow. He said, ‘welcome to the league, rookie.’ ”

Known throughout North America simply as “Mr. Hockey,” Howe, the 88-year-old former Detroit Red Wing died on Friday in Toledo, Ohio.

He had suffered two strokes in 2014, though he rallied a bit after a stem cell treatment to live another two years. His wife, Colleen, died in 2009 from Pick’s disease, which is a form of Alzheimer’s.

“A lot of these old timers are fading by the wayside,” Watson said.

A four-time Stanley Cup champion, Howe played an amazing 26 seasons and holds the NHL record for games played (1,767). He is second in scoring to Wayne Gretzky (894 goals) with 801 goals.

"So many generations of players wanted to play like Gordie Howe," Flyers legend Bobby Clarke said in a statement released from the team. "He was the ultimate professional hockey player."

Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe won six Hart Trophies as league MVP and six Art Ross Trophies as the leading scorer.

“In those days, you had Howe, Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau but it was always between Howe and Richard,” Watson said. “They were the elite of the elite.”

Howe’s final NHL season was 1979-80 with the Hartford Whalers. He was 51 then.

“He was intimidating,” Watson said. “A big, strong guy with sloping shoulders. He could be physical and played the game whichever way you wanted to play.

“I remember growing up as a boy and seeing a picture of  [The Rangers] Lou Fontinato who wanted to fight him once at Madison Square Garden. Gordie took a stick and nearly sliced off his ear. It was just dangling.”

Although Howe announced his retirement in 1971 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame the following year, he made a comeback with the Houston Aeros and the WHA in 1973. He wanted to play with his sons, Marty and Mark.

The term “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” referenced a  player who scored a goal, added an assist and had a fight.

“Gordie Howe had the best elbows in the league, the sharpest stick in the league and could be as dirty as he wanted to be could fight when he had to,” Watson said. “He could be mean and crude but off the ice, he was a good guy.”

Former Flyer, now assistant Penguins coach Rick Tocchet, holds the all-time record with 18 Gordie Howe Hat Tricks.

“Really sad,” Tocchet said. “Gordie Howe is the ultimate hockey player and an incredible family man.”

Incidentally, Watson said it took him a while to get revenge on Howe for breaking his nose during his rookie season.

“I do remember in [1971], I got even with Gordie,” Watson said. “I broke three of his ribs. We were fighting for position in front of the net in Philadelphia. Frank Mahovlich threw the puck out to Gordie and he got it.

“Just as he got it, I brought him down and he fell on my skates and cracked three of his ribs. We’re laying there and Gordie says, ‘don’t move.’ I said, ‘don’t worry, I can’t. You’re laying on my knees.”

Howe was being cared for by his son, Murray, when he died.

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