He also was Mr. Christmas.
It’s been 50 years since the NHL last played games on Christmas Day and it’s highly unlikely that teams ever will skate again Dec. 25. So lock up Howe’s half-century-old records for most career Christmas goals (12) and points (24), eight points ahead of the 16 (10 goals, six assists) Frank Mahovlich scored in 12 games.
The NHL played 124 games on Christmas between the 1920-21 and 1971-72 seasons, with Howe playing an NHL-record 21 times on Dec. 25. But the League has not dropped a puck that day since 1971, by agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.
Article 16.5 (b) in the Collective Bargaining Agreement states: “December 24, Christmas Day, and December 26 shall be off-days for all purposes, including travel, and no Club may request a Player’s consent to practice on such days for any reason, provided, however, if December 26 falls on a Saturday and the League has scheduled NHL Games on such date, December 23 may be substituted as an off-day for all purposes, including travel, instead of December 26.”
Toronto Maple Leafs rookie forward Frank Mahovlich scored three goals on Dec. 25, 1957 in a 5-4 win against the visiting Montreal Canadiens. He posed after the game in his team’s Maple Leaf Gardens clinic with 15 pucks, his goal total to that point.
But for five decades, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were regular workdays in the NHL, the final Dec. 24 games played in 1972.
Howe and his wife, Colleen, loved everything about the holiday, Mr. Hockey taking pride in the elaborate light displays he designed on their home. Then he’d string more lights over the rink he built on the front lawn for children Marty and Mark, with whom he’d play in the World Hockey Association and NHL, and Murray and Cathy.
“Gordie played so well on Christmas probably because he behaved himself pretty well, he never really overindulged,” Marty said. “He’d be social, have a couple with his teammates, then excuse himself, probably to see what Mark and I were going to do next.”
Indeed, the most productive game of Howe’s illustrious career came Dec. 25, 1956, when he had three goals and three assists in the Detroit Red Wings’ 8-1 win against the New York Rangers at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. It was the 12th of Howe’s 19 regular-season NHL hat tricks, and the 10th of 12 scored on Christmas Day between 1924-71, all by different players.
More than five years after his June 10, 2016 death at age 88, Howe still leads a few categories in the NHL record books beyond his Christmas chart-toppers: most 20-goal seasons, career (22) and consecutively (22); most goals by a right-wing, career (801); most NHL All-Star Games played (23); most All-Star Game power-play goals (six); and most All-Star Game penalty minutes (25).
Gordie and Colleen Howe at Christmastime in the 1980s. Atop this story: Marty Howe (left) and his brother, Mark, with presents on Christmas morning 1957, and Murray and Cathy Howe with their parents in 1960.
The first NHL game on Christmas Day was a 5-4 win for the Toronto St. Patricks against the Montreal Canadiens at Mutual Street Arena in Toronto on Dec. 25, 1920. The future Maple Leafs trailed 3-1 but scored four consecutive goals for the victory. Montreal’s Didier Pitre was the first NHL player to score in a Dec. 25 game.
A six-game schedule in 1971 would be the final Christmas NHL games. The 2-1 win by the New York Rangers against the Minnesota North Stars was their League-leading 25th victory on Dec. 25, with 10 losses and two ties in 37 games. The Los Angeles Kings (0-3-0) and Buffalo Sabres (a tie in their only game) are the only winless teams on Dec. 25.
The Kings’ 3-1 loss at home to the California Golden Seals in 1971 was the last Christmas Day game played, given that it was on the West Coast. Golden Seals forward Stan Gilbertson, a 27-year-old rookie, scored an empty-net goal with 18 seconds left in the third period for the final NHL goal scored on Christmas.
The greatest blowout, on the strength of Ebbie Goodfellow’s four goals, was the Detroit Falcons’ 10-1 win against the Maple Leafs in 1930.
For years, Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Tim Daly played Santa Claus at team Christmas parties. Here, during the 1960s, players (from left) Billy Harris, Johnny Bower, Red Kelly and Carl Brewer pay Santa a visit, while coach Punch Imlach jokes with St. Nick that he’d like a bigger Stanley Cup than the one he’s being offered.
During a 2011 conversation, late Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau vividly recalled a Christmas Eve road trip of 50 years earlier, the team’s train rolling south of Montreal toward Boston for a Dec. 25, 1961 game against the Bruins.
Beliveau remembered being in his lower berth near midnight, in pajamas reading as he usually did on the train, tucking into the sandwiches — “Maybe bologna, maybe ham” — packed for him by his wife, Elise.
Christmas was a special time for the couple, having become engaged during the holiday season of 1952, six months before he signed with the Canadiens.
That Christmas Eve of 1961, in his first of 10 seasons as Montreal’s captain, Beliveau recalled lifting the window blinds in his rail-car berth to an almost magical scene.
“I will remember it always, seeing all these people walking to the church for midnight Mass as our train headed to Boston,” he said.
The Canadiens would defeat the Bruins 5-2 on Christmas night, the sixth of 12 games he played Dec. 25.
“Being away from home at Christmas was always tough on the morale,” Beliveau said. “But I used to tell Elise, ‘We have a lot of good time after the hockey season, we have to make a little sacrifice somewhere.'”
Future Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau proposes to Elise Couture in Quebec City at Christmas 1952, six months before they were married and nine months before Beliveau signed his first Canadiens contract; and Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower and his wife, Nancy, read “The Night Before Christmas” to their children, (from left) John Jr., Barbara and Cindy at Christmas 1959.
Beliveau’s teammate and best friend, Dickie Moore, played seven games Dec. 25, without fail having the same pregame meal of steak, potato and vegetables, no matter the turkey or ham special in hotel restaurants.
“Christmas was a festive time, like anybody else spent as best you could with your family, then you went and played hockey,” Moore said. “It was our job and we had to do it. There wasn’t anything you could say about it.”
But perhaps shining more brilliantly than any of the legends was defenseman Noel (that’s Christmas, in French) Picard, so named for having been born Dec. 25, 1938. Picard played on his birthday for the St. Louis Blues in 1967 and 1968, both times on the road at the Minnesota North Stars, both shutout victories for the Blues. Better yet, he scored the game winner, his only goal of the season, in a 1-0 win for the Blues on Christmas Day 1967.
Even if the NHL hasn’t played games on Dec. 25 since 1971, it hasn’t stopped many from getting into the Christmas spirit. Two Santas as proof: New York Rangers forward Mark Messier in 1991, and Rangers fan Glen Jacobson of New Jersey, riding the Long Island Rail Road to a Dec. 23, 2011 game at Madison Square Garden.
Photos: Howe Family Collection; Turfosky/Michael Burns, Hockey Hall of Fame; Jean Beliveau Collection; Getty Images