JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Mr. Hockey never played on a Johnstown team throughout his incredible 32-year professional career on the ice.
But Gordie Howe did make a memorable appearance with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings in an exhibition game against the American Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Hornets at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Saturday will mark the 58th anniversary of that game, played on Sept. 25, 1963.
“Gordie Howe, Detroit’s superstar, cast his magic scoring spell over the Pittsburgh Hornets in a torrid second period, and the Wings breezed to an 8-1 victory,” wrote former Tribune-Democrat sports writer Jesse Isenberg in coverage of the exhibition contest.
Howe netted a hat trick and two assists against the Hornets, who were the Red Wings’ top minor league club at the time.
“Also a showman,” the newspaper’s game story noted, Howe delighted a War Memorial crowd of 2,377 when he played goaltender in the closing seconds.
One future Hockey Hall of Famer, Howe, relieved another future Hall of Famer, goalie Terry Sawchuk, in net with less than a minute remaining. He didn’t face any shots.
“In Gordie Howe, Detroit has one of the greatest players in the history of hockey,” Isenberg wrote. “During the 1962-63 season, his 17th in the National Hockey League, Howe led in scoring with 86 points, was voted the league’s most valuable player and named to the first all-star team for the 14th time. He has led the NHL in scoring six times and received as many MVP awards.”
Howe still had another 17 years as a professional player in front of him when Isenberg reported those words in The Tribune-Democrat.
He set NHL records when he retired with 801 goals, 1,049 assists and 1,850 career points in 1,767 games played in a career that began in 1946 and ended in 1980.
He competed in five different decades in the NHL. Howe played 26 NHL seasons, nearly all with Detroit, and six seasons in the former World Hockey Association.
In 1997, Howe briefly came out of retirement to play in one International Hockey League game, giving him status as playing professionally in six different decades.
Howe died at age 88 in 2016.
‘Big Daddy’ was back
The Red Wings-Hornets exhibition game also was a homecoming for John Mitchell, who was an assistant coach to Detroit Red Wings coach Sid Abel.
Mitchell was the general manager of the Johnstown Jets throughout a run to three consecutive Eastern Hockey League playoff championship seasons from 1960 through 1962.
The man known locally as “Big Daddy” eventually returned to the Jets and led Johnstown to a NAHL championship in 1975, another high mark on the resumé of a Cambria County Sports Hall of Famer.
“John Mitchell, former Johnstown Jets general manager and now assistant to Abel at Detroit, was honored before the game when Charles Kunkle, president of the Johnstown Hockey Club, presented him a suit, coat and hat from his local friends,” The Tribune-Democrat reported.
Howe later made another stop in Johnstown to help induct his friend, Johnstown hockey icon Don Hall, into the inaugural class of the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame in 1965.
‘A real hockey fan’
Howe’s presence during the 1963 exhibition game made quite a lasting impression on devoted Johnstown hockey fans.
One of those was the late Charles “Chuck” White, who was a respected and well-liked statistician/off-ice official with the Johnstown Jets and Chiefs from the 1960s through 2010.
White, who died at age 85 in 2016, once recalled a close encounter with Howe during the 1963 exhibition at the War Memorial.
“I remember sitting in the first row, when Gordie Howe played here with the Detroit Red Wings against the Pittsburgh Hornets,” White said during an interview in 2007.
“Gordie let a shot go, and my wife – my girlfriend at the time – got hit right below the eye after the puck tinged off three or four players. She had to get stitches in the locker room. The next period, Gordie skated over and told my wife, ‘You’re a real hockey fan now.’ ”
Coming from Mr. Hockey, that was quite an endorsement.
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.