Way back in 1943, the Rangers had an opportunity to sign a 15-year-old Saskatchewan native who had made a name for himself by winning a championship at the bantam level.
Before Gordie Howe became universally known as “Mr. Hockey,” he developed his ambidextrous skill with a straight stick on bitter cold outdoor ponds and playing in front of sold-out crowds across the province for King George Athletic Club.
In those days, NHL teams were short of organization depth due to World War II. Rangers general manager Lester Patrick ran an amateur school in Winnipeg that allowed the Blueshirts to examine prospects and determine which youngsters were capable of attending the Rangers’ main camp.
The Rangers created a successful pipeline by finding up-and-coming talents in the province and signing them to C-form contracts to play for their junior team, the Regina Rangers of the South Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League. Grant Warwick, Jim Henry, Gord Davidson and Scott Cameron were among the youngsters who successfully climbed the ranks all the way to Madison Square Garden.
Howe and several friends made a near-500 mile trip from his hometown of Saskatoon to Winnipeg to attend the 1943 Lester Patrick camp. Contrary to erroneous reports that the Rangers mistakenly sent Howe home from training camp, Howe told The New York Times in a 1980 interview that the Rangers asked him to join their junior team after observing his talents for less than a week.
Keeping in mind that Regina was a long distance from family and friends in Saskatoon, Howe informed the Rangers that he would only join up with their farm team in Regina if some of his friends would also be reporting. The Rangers chose not to extend that invitation to any other Saskatoon youths aside from Howe. Upon learning this, Howe returned home.
One year later, Howe was invited to the Detroit Red Wings’ camp in Windsor, Ontario. Having known Howe’s reasons for declining the Rangers’ offer, the Red Wings assured Howe that several of his friends would be joining him on Detroit’s junior team in Gait, Ontario. His signing bonus was a Red Wings’ team jacket.
From there, you know the rest of the story. Howe would go on to play 25 seasons for the Red Wings and establish an NHL record 801 goals before Wayne Gretzky surpassed his total in 1994. Previously, Gretzky passed Howe’s NHL record of 1,850 points during the 1989-90 season.
Still to this day, Howe owns several NHL records including – most NHL games played (1,767), most NHL seasons played (26 – tied with Chris Chelios), most NHL All-Star Game appearances (23) and most consecutive 20-goal seasons (22).
Howe would lead the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup championships. He captured six Hart Trophies and was awarded the Art Ross Trophy six times.
His decision not to sign with the Rangers remains one of hockey’s great what-if scenarios. After winning the 1940 Stanley Cup, the Blueshirts waited 54 years to reclaim Lord Stanley. Had Howe chosen the bright lights of Broadway over The Motor City, his presence alongside Andy Bathgate, Harry Howell, Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and co. likely would have resulted in a dramatic change in fortunes.
Howe’s first Stanley Cup glory came in 1950, when the Red Wings defeated the Rangers in seven games. A serious head injury suffered in Game 1 of the playoffs caused Howe to miss the remainder of the postseason. Pete Babando scored the double-overtime winning goal in Game 7 to win the series for Detroit.
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