It was the stretch drive of the 1972-73 NHL season. The Detroit Red Wings found themselves in a dogfight for the fourth and final East Division playoff spot with the Buffalo Sabres. Wings coach Johnny Wilson had a notion of a move the team could make that would give Detroit a leg up on Buffalo.
Wilson wanted to bring Wings legend Gordie Howe out of retirement to finish the season with the team. Wilson had won four Stanley Cups in Detroit as Howe’s teammate. He figured even at the age of 44 and after a year-and-a-half out of the game, Mr. Hockey could give the Wings enough to push them past the Sabres and into the playoffs.
“I knew doggone well that if we’d have had Gordie, he would’ve been the best player on the team,” Wilson said in a 2001 interview.
The concept was not without precedent. During the 1956-57 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs convinced former captain Teeder Kennedy, the 1954-55 Hart Trophy winner, to come back. Kennedy ended a season-and-a-half retirement and help the club make a playoff push.
Wilson approached Detroit GM New Harkness regarding this idea of bringing back Howe. Harkness flat out rejected it.
Houston Gives Red Wings A Problem
Detroit finished two points behind the Sabres and missed the playoffs. Wilson was replaced as coach after the season and in June of 1973, Howe did come back. He signed to join his sons Mark and Marty with the WHA Houston Aeros.
The Wings continued their downward spiral, missing the playoffs for a club-record seven straight seasons from 1970-71 through 1976-77. Meanwhile, Howe led the Aeros to back-to-back Avco Cup titles in 1973-74 and 1974-75. He was named WHA MVP in his comeback campaign.
Had Harkness listened to Wilson, perhaps Howe never goes to the WHA. Even better, maybe the NHL would have seen the wisdom of combining the Howes on the Red Wings roster and found a way to make it happen.