Gordie Howe's death has left the hockey world grieving. Red Wings fans packed into Detroit's Joe Louis Arena in June to pay their respects and Wayne Gretzky called for the Howe's number to be retired across the sport.
As a kid growing up in Michigan, I idolized Howe - and with good reason. Howe was hockey. In a sport that chews up the weak, Howe's signature mix of speed, skill, and white-knuckle toughness guided him through a career that spanned four decades. Yes, four decades. When he retired, no one had played more games. And no one has played more since.
When I think about models of leadership, Howe makes the short list. To honor his incredible career, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned watching Gordie Howe terrorize opponents on the ice.
Lesson 1: Don't Let a Few Broken Bones Hold You Back
One of Howe's greatest tests came when his career was just beginning. In the 1950 playoffs, just four years into his career, the 22-year-old Howe lowered his shoulder and went in for a check. At the last second, his opponent ducked and Howe slammed against the boards, fracturing his skull. A bloody Howe was lifted from the ice and rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.
It was gruesome. The kind of injury that shows young athletes they're mortal. But Howe was not shaken. The following season, he roared back stronger than ever, winning his first of six scoring titles.
The injury marked a turning point in his career. After that moment, Howe stepped up his game and played at a level that clearly established him as the greatest player of his generation.
The takeaway: As a business owner, I've learned I can't expect things to go smoothly. In your first years, you will get knocked around. Hard. But the good ones get back up and find a way to be stronger than they were before.
Lesson 2: Earn Your Reputation Early
My favorite bit of trivia about Gordie Howe has to do with the so-called "Gordie Howe hat trick." Unlike a normal hat trick (three goals in one game), the Gordie Howe version is a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.
Now, here's the thing. As it turns out, Howe only actually accomplished this feat twice in his career. So why did is the fight-assist-goal combo named after him? Because he earned a reputation for that style of play.
The best scorer and passer in the game was also nicknamed "Mr. Elbows" for the way he shoved opponents aside. Ironically, it was this physicality that kept him out of fights. Opponents were too afraid to fight him.
The takeaway: Howe's tenacity earned him a reputation he carried with him throughout his career. Learn from his example and establish your reputation early. No one at your company should want it more than you.
Lesson 3: Skill Trumps Everything
Howe was an ambidextrous player. Yep, you read that right. Equally skilled with either hand, Howe wielded a flat-bladed hockey stick which allowed him to switch hands to shoot or pass in any direction at any moment.
It was a nightmare scenario for a defender. You've got the greatest player in the game bearing down on you. He's stronger than you. And he can take the puck in any direction he wants. How can you defend that? The answer: you can't.
The takeaway: While Howe had a reputation as a tough guy, he made his living outsmarting and outplaying opponents. As a business owner, versatility should be the name of your game. You can't just be the "numbers guy" or the "tech guru." You should be equally comfortable in sales, IT, marketing, and any other department at your company.
While Howe's death is an undeniable loss, we can honor his legacy of toughness, strength, and skill.