With the passing of Gordie Howe his legacy has officially been immortalized. We know the numbers; the goals, the awards, the championships and the records of longevity. To me, the number that will stick out most is the no.9 on the back of his jersey.
Strangely, Howe accepted the number out of convenience. After wearing no.17 into his first season with the Red Wings, Howe was offered a lower number and took it for an unsuspecting reason,
The No. 9 became available and it was offered to me. We traveled by train back then, and guys with higher numbers got the top bunk on the sleeper car. No. 9 meant I got a lower berth on the train, which was much nicer than crawling into the top bunk.
Howe's preference to the bottom bunk changed hockey history forever. While Maurice "Rocket" Richard terrorized opposing goalies wearing no.9 for the Montreal Canadiens for five seasons before Howe entered the league, Howe made the number synonymous with hockey greatness to a broader audience across the northern U.S. and into western Canada.
Bobby Hull became the next great Original Six era scorer, being the second player (first being Richard) in league history to reach the 50 goal mark. Initially, Hull wore the numbers 16 and 7 but eventually switched to no.9--a number which saw him win a Stanley Cup and dominate goal scoring--in tribute to Howe, who he idolized in his teen years. Ironically, the two would finish their career together with the Hartford Whalers in 1980.
As time went on, more elite NHL talent seemed to be wearing no.9 to the point we reached Wayne Gretzky.
By the time Gretzky became a phenom, Howe's career was just coming to an end, with both sharing the WHA's final season (including playing on the same line in the all-star game!!!) and Gretz' first NHL season being Gordie's last. Clearly Gretzky was influenced by Mr.Hockey. He wanted to wear no.9 in honor of Howe during his first season with the Ontario Hockey Association's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds but it was already taken. His coach, Muzz McPherson, suggested he wear no.99 to still pay tribute to Howe.
In between, other notable players to wear no.9 have been Johnny Bucyk of the Boston Bruins, Clark Gilles with the New York Islanders, Lanny MacDonald with the Calgary Flames, Doug Gilmour with the St.Louis Blues, Paul Kariya with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Metro Detroit native (and um, I guess former Wing) Mike Modano with the Dallas Stars. Truly the number carried regard in hockey similar to no.10 often worn by prolific strikers in soccer.
The run of influence on the no.9 being an elite number in the NHL seems to have slowed as several generations have rolled over since Howe's prime in the 50's and 60's. Now no.19 or 91 with Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos remain common as tributes to Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic or you have Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid are among generational talent who chose their numbers based on birth year, finding them both unique and sobering to aging fans.
Howe's final ranking of where he falls among the all-time greats continues to shift. The argument usually bounces around him, Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux. Today many folks are feeling the sentimental surge that he was indeed the greatest player in the history of the game.
You can argue where he stands among the hockey's very greatest. What you cannot argue is the depth of influence Howe's had since he entered the game in 1947. He was the first hockey player to capture the United States' imagination, which helped stabilize and grow the NHL to its 1967 expansion. Howe then got involved in the World Hockey Association, giving hockey two competitive major-professional leagues and proved well into his 40's that he could outscore and outwit players half his age.
Through 31 seasons of Howe's pro hockey career and beyond, we've seen several fellow legends of the game wear no.9 or spin-off of the number in tribute. If you step back and attempt to weigh his influence, it's clear, Howe established the NHL then cradled it through evolution. In that sense, every player has Gordie Howe to thank.