Gordie Howe’s final days as an NHL player saw the 52-year-old legend in a Hartford Whalers uniform and his last goal came 40 years ago this week. This monumental moment was not properly covered in the next season’s hockey card sets, but there are still options out there for collectors to relive the end day of an incredible career.
Gordie was already by far the NHL’s all-time leading scorer when he returned to action in 1979-80, having spent 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring at the end of 1970-71. Bored with inactivity, he decided to return with the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1973-74 along with his sons, Mark and Marty.
They won two championships together, but headed north to skate for the New England Whalers in 1977-78. The WHA disbanded following the next campaign and were absorbed into the NHL along with the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets.
Hockey’s First Active Grandfather
Despite some health concerns before the 1979-80 season began, Gordie was out on the ice every night and helped the now-Hartford Whalers to a respectable 73-point finish. He still managed 15 goals and 41 points for the year and was the game’s only active grandfather. On top of that, he carved out plenty of space on the ice thanks to his propensity to throw an elbow at an unsuspecting opponent.
By a similar token, Mark was in true All-Star form despite switching from left wing to defense, but for much of the season, however, Gordie’s other hockey-playing son, Marty, was relegated to the AHL with the Springfield Indians. While he was essentially kept close in case of a call-up, the Whalers simply chose not to promote him until the March 9, 1980 match against the Boston Bruins.
The trio were part of history three days later, when they all took to the ice during the club’s visit to their old stomping grounds in Detroit at the then-recently opened Joe Louis Arena. Marty was sent down following a -3 performance against the Montreal Canadiens on March 19, but with Mark out of the lineup due to a late-season injury, he was in the lineup for the second-last game of the campaign as the expansion cousin Nordiques came to town.
Last Regular Season Game
At the time, NHL teams played an 80-game schedule and with a playoff spot secured, the Whalers hosted the Detroit Red Wings in what was to be Gordie’s final regular season contest. If this was planned in advance by the NHL, it was fitting due to Gordie’s connection with the club. After scoring his 800th career goal against Mike Liut of the St. Louis Blues on March 24, 1980, Howe underwent a six-game scoreless streak and was ready to pad his numbers.
At the 5:10 mark of the first period, Gordie recorded what proved to be his 1,049th, and final, assist on a goal by rookie Ray Allison. The Red Wings, despite being out of playoff contention at this point, stormed back at 8:43 when Error Thompson potted his 34th of the year.
Detroit moved into the lead when Dale McCourt scored to make it 2-1 at 5:40 of the second period. High-scoring Whalers forward Blaine Stoughton tied things up at 7:47 before Gordie scored for the last time at 11:25 with assists from Allison and teammate Gordie Roberts, who had actually been named after him! The goalie in question was fellow Hockey Hall of Fame member Rogie Vachon, who was at a low ebb in his career in the Motor City.
In the final stanza, Detroit tied it up again thanks to a goal by Dan Labraaten, but the Stash-Bash-Dash line of Stoughton, Pat Boutette, and Mike Rogers scored twice to ensure victory. Stoughton picked up another goal, tying him for the league lead with Buffalo’s Danny Gare and Charlie Simmer of Los Angeles with 56 tallies. Rogers finished the year with an impressive 155 points while Stoughton registered 100.
Disappointing Playoff Run
The Whalers had a daunting task in the first round of the playoffs as they had to face the Montreal Canadiens, who had won four straight Stanley Cups. Hartford was swept in three straight, signalling the end of an era in hockey as both Gordie and teammate Bobby Hull shuffled off into retirement. After going pointless during the series opener, he tried to spark a rally in the second contest on April 9 as the Whalers were down 8-2. He set up Marty for a goal at 5:55 of the third and scored himself a little over 8:00 later, but it was not enough and Hartford headed home facing elimination. It proved to be his last goal and the victim was Denis Herron, who went on to share the Vezina Trophy the following year.
Gordie’s final outing saw the Whalers eliminated on April 11 and he went on to work for the club as an executive for a brief period.
A few months prior to Howe’s last goal and game, he was given what proved to be his final card from his playing days. Both 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee and Topps show him from the previous campaign in a New England Whalers sweater. You can own a nice copy for a pretty reasonable price today.
There are two cameos on the card in the form of Edmonton Oilers forward Brett Callighen and Whalers teammate John McKenzie. The man known as “Pie” was in his last pro season here and Hartford eventually retired his number.
There is some additional significance to this shot as it is believed to have been taken during the same game alongside the photo which was used on Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card by Steve Babineau. Shot on November 9, 1978, it came just one week after the 17-year-old had been acquired from the soon-to-be defunct Indianapolis Racers.
By the time the 1980-81 hockey card releases rolled around, both O-Pee-Chee and Topps did not produce a regular card of Gordie, leaving collectors without one in his NHL Whalers uniform until the hobby boomed a decade later. Savvy collectors will have noticed that he does appear in the Whalers team photo insert which was seeded into packs of 1980-81 Topps, but it takes an even keener eye to find him faded into the background of his son, Mark’s, All-Star subset card.
The second series of 1990-91 Pro Set finally gave collectors an official card of Gordie with a photo from his final season. In fact, there are two which depict him in his white home sweater – the Career Points Leader card with an oddly-cropped waist-up photo and the Hall of Fame subset card with a more attractive full-length shot.
The photos were also likely taken by Babineau during a home game at some point in the 1979-80 campaign as he contributed a significant amount of pictures to the initial Pro Set offering. Additionally, both of these cards have variations which come with or without the number of seasons (32) noted in the heading on the back.
Over the past 30 years, there have been other Howe cards depicting him in his time with the NHL version of the Whalers. One notable piece is his 2012-13 Panini Classics base card and autograph, which shows him during that playoff series against the Canadiens. The photo was taken by Denis Brodeur, whose son, Martin, went on to great heights in hockey.