On Oct. 3, 1997, 69-year-old Hall of Famer Gordie Howe skates the first shift with the Detroit Vipers in their International Hockey League opener, becoming the only professional in hockey to compete in six decades.
His nickname was “Mr. Hockey,” and as that moniker suggests, Howe was one of the game’s greats. As much as anything else, Howe was known for his longevity. He played in his first NHL game for the Detroit Red Wings in 1946, when Harry Truman was president. He skated in his final shift for Detroit in 1971, during Richard Nixon’s administration.
Remarkably, Howe’s career didn’t end when he left Detroit. In 1980, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, a 52-year-old Howe played in his last NHL game for the Hartford Whalers, a franchise that played its first game a year after Howe left the Red Wings.
To create a buzz, the Vipers signed Mr. Hockey to a one-day contract. Kansas City won the game in Detroit, but the outcome was secondary for the capacity crowd of 20,182. In a pregame ceremony that featured Howe being presented with a bronze sculpture, the crowd—many of whom had not seen Howe in his Red Wings heyday—chanted “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie.”
Howe only played 40 seconds, but the mission of creating a moment was accomplished.
“Tremendous friendship has been shown the Howe family by the Vipers family and all the players,” Howe said, according to The Canadian Press. “I want to thank them for putting up with me.”