On And On And On And . . . : Gordie Howe, hockey's ageless wonder
Gordie Howe is skating in his fifth decade, and while his legs are not what they used to be, his heart, head -- and elbows -- are.
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "On And On And On And . . . " by E.M. Swift, which details the never-ending career of Gordie Howe, the NHL legend who just couldn't skate away from the game he loved.
Gordie Howe is not a philosophical man. Philosophical men are forever brooding about things, mulling over the whys and wherefores of the six mad-scramble days of Creation, concocting philosophies that attempt to make order out of chaos so that they may cope. Gordie Howe does not brood. He has a philosophy, but he does not brood.
In that way he resembles, say, a farmer. Gordie Howe is not a farmer. He has never been a farmer, although before he was born his father did own a homestead in Saskatchewan and grew wheat--when anything grew at all. Still, there is something about Gordie that calls to mind that manner of man--horse sense, perhaps. Equilibrium. Farmers get it from the land, from weather that one year makes the crops fat and the next year brings a famine, from prices that fluctuate unpredictably, from things beyond a man's control. No sense hollering about it. Make do. Equilibrium. Who knows where Howe's comes from? But it is there. He is steady. And he has a down-to-earth way of speaking, so that the toddling grandson is "like a dog, examining every damn tree." Farmers say things like that.
One precept Howe lives by is this: set your goals high, but not so high that you can't reach them. When you do, set new ones. The trouble is, he has attained so many that he is running out of goals to set. At age 51, as a Hartford Whaler, he is in his fifth decade as a professional hockey player. "One of my goals was longevity; I guess I've pretty much got the lock on that." he says with Gordian understatement.
Five decades. The '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Old Gord has seen more decades in North America than the Volkswagen Beetle. You think he's old? Early in his third decade in the National Hockey League, 1961, the year Carl Yastrzemski broke into the major leagues--Yaz, the doddering ancient who this summer rapped his 400th homer and 3,000th hit--this magazine called Howe an "ageless one-man team." So, what is 19 years beyond ageless? Eternal? And why shouldn't a hockey player set standards for longevity? Cannot mastodons be preserved in ice?
George Blanda kicked field goals until he was two years shy of the half-century mark. Hoyt Wilhelm threw a baffling knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49, and who knows how old Satchel Paige really was when he worked late innings of relief in the midnight of his career? Sam Snead, in his 60s, still plays competitively against the young golf pros on the tour; why, he even shot his age in a tournament last summer. But it is not necessary, or even desirable, to compare these geriatric wonders. They endured. Endurance is a battle against time that no one can win indefinitely. We all wage it, and we all eventually lose, which is why these older athletes are so incredibly popular.
Howe has received stupendous ovations wherever he has played in this, his 32nd season. The first round of applause is for his past, for what he has given the fans over the years in hockey artistry, for this man is the greatest player in the game's history. As Maurice (Rocket) Richard's scoring records receded further and further in the '60s, people looked to other sports to find suitably sublime parallels for Howe. He was said to be as effortless as DiMaggio, as well-balanced and deceptively fast as Jimmy Brown, as steady and soft-spoken as Gehrig. A great to-do was made in 1969 when Howe scored his 715th goal, passing the home-run record of Babe Ruth. When, at 43, Howe retired for the first time, after 25 seasons as a Detroit Red Wing, NHL President Clarence Campbell gave him due credit for the robust good health of the league, which had recently expanded to 14 teams. "When Gordie came into the NHL," Campbell said, "hockey was a Canadian game. He's converted it into a North American game."
As their hands warm to the occasion, fans applaud Howe for what he gives them now; for enduring. Suddenly there are two different games on the ice: the home team against the Whalers and Howe against Papa Time. So when, for instance, the Big Guy scored two goals his first time back in Maple Leaf Gardens since 1971, helping Hartford upset Toronto, the crowd cheered him as one of their own, and went home happy. Occasionally the two games will interfere with one another, which happened at the Montreal Forum when Howe, whose every move had been lustily hailed, high-sticked Guy Lafleur in the forehead, possibly by accident. For a moment there was a shocked silence as the 16,000 spectators collectively came to the same realization: Why, the old bugger still has teeth! Then they booed.
Clearly, Howe cannot stand to be too much loved in another team's building. On the night of Nov. 27, 1965, in that same Forum, Howe scored his 600th goal, and Montrealers showed their appreciation for the unprecedented feat by standing, applauding and littering the ice for several minutes. They had barely settled back into their seats, however, when they were back on their feet, booing Howe as they had never booed him before. Exactly 2:26 after the historic goal, Howe was given a five-minute major penalty for elbowing and deliberately attempting to injure J. C. Tremblay, the Canadian defenseman; Tremblay, in fact, suffered a broken cheekbone.
It would be absurd to suggest that now, in 1980, Gordie Howe is the player he used to be. He will be 52 in March, and is the grandfather of two. To compare a 51-year-old man with the greatest player of all time is silly. But it is not silly to compare him with the players coming into the NHL, the 20-year-olds who can skate and shoot and throw their bodies around but who cannot beat this man out of a job, or keep him from scoring.Howe has earned his position on the Whalers. He is not a continuing publicity stunt. The man can play.
"Players learn to play when they're young, and that's the way they play all their lives," says Maurice Richard. "There are a lot of skills this generation doesn't have. They know they don't have to stickhandle; just chase after the puck. It may be that today's game is faster, it may be there's more skating, but teams just throw the puck in and chase it. The game's become a footrace. I guess that's another reason Gordie's still going."
Hockey, of course, was never meant to be a footrace, because the fastest skater in the world cannot outskate a pass, and because, for all its advantages, dumping a puck into the corner and chasing it proves little if, once regaining it, a man does not have the stickhandling skills to work it toward--and eventually into--the goal. Which is the point, after all. The art of stickhandling hasn't died; there are just fewer stickhandlers spread among more teams. And the great stick-handlers are still the great scorers: Lafleur, L.A.'s Marcel Dionne, young Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers. Howe may now be the slowest forward in the league, but at last count he had 11 goals, which was sixth-best on the Whalers. There is so much more to the game than foot speed, or shot speed. There are men who point to the success of a 51-year-old grandfather as proof positive of the sorry state of hockey today, but for those who love the sport, it is an affirmation of the game's subtleties that a man who has lost his youth and speed and recklessness can still succeed with strength and savvy and guile.
"Gordie has no set play for a given situation," says Don Blackburn, the Whalers' coach. "I never know what he'll do with the puck because there's no limit to his creativity." Says Jean Beliveau, who played center for the Montreal Canadiens for 18 years and was even smoother than Howe, though not nearly so strong: "Gordie, he still has that instinct."
Time does not diminish instinct. Nor, surprisingly, does it necessarily erode strength. Howe is still tremendously strong, which is less of a surprise to his doctors than to the kids he plays against. Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who gave Howe the go-ahead to come out of retirement the first time, at age 45, to play in Houston with his two sons. "I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you'd find similar musculature," Bailey says. "It's a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That's almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80."
When Howe had his physical before this season, the cardiologist said, "This man could run up Mount Everest." Howe, in fact, loathes running as far as up the driveway, although for the first time in his career he jogged some last summer. But his pulse rate and blood pressure remain those of a young man. "The stamina is there, the strength is there, it's the speed that goes," says Vincent Turco, the Whalers' team doctor. "But age is kinder to hockey players, because skating is a little different than running."
It has been suggested that one of the reasons age has been kinder to Howe, specifically, is that none of the younger hockey players wants to be labeled as the guy who knocked the Old Man out of the game. Well, that simply isn't true. If players are staying away from Howe, they are doing so out of concern for their own skins, not his. Howe has spent more than 30 years playing what he calls "religious hockey"--it's better to give than to receive--and the woodwork crawls with horror stories of those who crossed him. Tough men who crossed him. Lou Fontinato, the Rangers' policeman, challenged Howe and took three uppercuts to the face--thwap! thwap! thwap! People who were there swear you could hear the sound of Fontinato's nose breaking all over Madison Square Garden. Jean Beliveau tells of seeing Howe release his stick following a wrist shot so that it slashed across Gilles Tremblay's forehead. Gristly John Ferguson, now general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, took over as Howe's shadow when Tremblay retired from the Canadiens. "He never scored on me," Ferguson says. "That's my claim to fame. Of course, he got a few when I was in the penalty box. And one night he stuck the blade of his stick into my mouth and hooked my tongue for nine stitches."
Colleen Howe, Gordie's wife and business manager, says "Gordie doesn't elbow somebody in the jaw out of anger; he does it to teach them a lesson, if they've embarrassed him on the ice. He's a tremendously prideful person."
It's a lesson that this generation of NHL players has largely accepted on faith. They may not be able to stick-handle, but they're no dummies. "Howe's still good with his elbows," says Black Hawk Forward Cliff Koroll. "But he doesn't really have to use them much, because nobody comes near him."
It is obvious, too, that Howe has lost none of his subtlety. When he throws an elbow, he does not stop and fling one in anger, but incorporates it into his skating stride. So it is a rhythmic motion--left foot forward, right elbow back--barely noticeable. Except that the young pursuer is suddenly a stride behind and, now that you think about it, the natural rhythm of a skater does not call for elbows at ear level.
In a game against Winnipeg, Howe twice elbowed 6' 3", 210-pound Defenseman Scott Campbell in the third period. The second time, the 22-year-old Campbell went after him, challenging Howe, until the linesmen stepped between them. After the game, an amused Howe shoved a powerful forearm into someone's collarbone, showing where he'd given Campbell his shots. "Those kind don't hurt too much," he said. "They don't count if they're not in the face."
But, as Beliveau suggests, "Let's remember Gordie Howe as a hockey player. Deep down he was--and is--a hockey player."
The Hartford Whalers--or, rather, the Springfield Whalers--were not supposed to be a very good team this year. Early in the season they beat Toronto (twice), Buffalo and Atlanta, among the old-line clubs, and tied Montreal at the Forum. The Whalers' better-than-expected early showing was not so much a result of Howe's play as of the influence he had on the team. Who wouldn't become pumped up when crowd after crowd in stadium after stadium greets a teammate with prolonged standing ovations? Who wouldn't work that much harder to make a legend's return to the NHL a success? "The players are Gordie Howe fans," says Blackburn, 41, a thoughtful man who spent 15 of his 18 pro seasons playing minor league hockey and is in his first year as coach. "The coach is a Gordie Howe fan. He's so competitive. If you try to outdo him in a crossword puzzle, you've got a problem. So when you're 22, and you see a 51-year-old guy hacking guys and running over guys, how can you not go out and do the same thing?"
Yet for all his respect, Blackburn knows that his own job depends on the continued success of the team, and the Whalers have been in a miserable slump for the last six weeks, winning only two of their last 20 games. Howe, too, has slumped as a goal scorer; he had 11 goals through Dec. 31, but has not scored since then. Compounding Howe's goal-scoring problems, he has had difficulty adjusting to Blackburn's unique defensive strategies. A right wing, Howe has spent his entire career covering his opposite wing in the defensive zone. But under Blackburn's system, his job is to cover the left defenseman at the point. "He forgets a lot," Blackburn says. "You just close your eyes and hope."
Says Mike Rogers, who centers Howe's line, "Gordie doesn't really know where he is defensively. He doesn't like standing in one place. So you let him go wherever he wants. He can't change. He might be out at the point, but then he might be hiding behind the net somewhere. Our line's not that great defensively."
Fortunately for the Whalers, the left wing on the line is a smallish, tough, brilliant player named Mark Howe, Gordie's second son. At 24 he is starting to come into his own, displaying flashes of the greatness that has been predicted for him. Already Mark is one of the finest defensive forwards in the NHL; smart, tireless, an honest backchecker who makes up for his dad's defensive hooky. The two Howes and Rogers make up Hartford's most productive line, but Blackburn is watching for signs that Gordie's legs can no longer put the hands and elbows and head in position to do the job. In the wings is a 20-year-old speedster named Ray Allison, Hartford's top draft choice, who Blackburn believes would develop rapidly given a chance to play with Mark Howe and Rogers. "It's not an enviable position to be in--the greatest player in the history of the game and me a rookie coach," says Black-burn. "I dread what's coming."
There is a lady in Detroit who heard Gordie Howe mention in an interview that his father's 87th birthday was coming up. She did not know Gordie, except as a fan, but took it upon herself to send his father a card. "Mr. Howe, Gordie's Father, Floral, Saskatchewan" was the way she addressed it. The card arrived, naturally--Gordie once received a letter addressed: "Mr. Hockey, Detroit, Michigan." The town of Floral no longer exists, having been swallowed up by booming Saskatoon, a sprawling transportation center in the heart of the prairie.
Ab Howe is somewhat brusque in his recollection of the boy Gordie. "He was clumsy and backward and bashful," he says. "That's why I never thought he'd amount to anything." The gentleness in Gordie's nature was a gift from his mother, Kathleen, who died at 76, a woman who bore three of her nine children without help, while Ab was working the wheat fields. But the fierce pride, the toughness, the occasional meanness that show up on the ice come from Ab, who bequeathed a prairie philosophy to his big, backward son when he was sent home from the first team he tried out for: "Never take dirt from nobody, 'cause they'll keep throwing it at you."
Old Ab Howe never took any dirt from anyone. During the Depression he worked for the city of Saskatoon and earned 40¢ an hour--$4 a day to raise nine children, and lucky to have it--and every man in his construction crew wanted his job as foreman. "I had to set a few down," he says. "I fired this Frenchman, told him to collect his pay and get out of my sight, and he swung at me. I told him, `You goddamn pea soup, you swung at the wrong man. I'll put you in the hospital.' Knocked him down and kicked him in the pants on his way out."
At 87, Ab is still square-shouldered and trim. His thick, mittlike hands are even bigger than Gordie's, which are size 11, XXL in the catalogues. Genetically, Ab, whose own father died at 94, can take a lot of credit for the way things have turned out for his clumsy son, the bashful, backward boy who flunked the third grade twice yet would sit up at night with a Sears catalogue and circle all the nice things his mother could use, promising, "When I'm famous..."; who would skate endlessly on the frozen sloughs between the wheat fields, a hockey stick in hand always, knowing the vehicle that would take him to fame, wanting nothing else, and in preparation for that day, practicing his autograph until his sister-in-law would ask:
"What the heck you doing, Gordon?"
"Which one do you like?"
"That one." She would point to one of four, and he would practice it.
Ab remembers, "When he joined the Wings, I told the wife, `I hope that boy never fights. He's got a blow that can kill a man.' He's both-handed, you know, like me. Worked on my crew two summers. Best man I ever had. Had him on the mixer with his brother Vern. He could pick up a cement bag in either hand--90 pounds. Weren't the weight so much as you couldn't get a grip on them, the sacks were packed so tight. He'd pick them right up by the middle. His brother played out in two days, but Gordon, he liked that mixer.
"He was strong, all right. Fella came with some counterweights for a dragline in the back of his truck, and Gordon says, `Mr. Driscoll, you want these off?' Well, it weren't a one-man job, but Driscoll, he winks at me and says, `Sure, Gord, right over here.' Lifted 'em out of there like it was nothin'. Driscoll like to fall over. Oh, he was strong.
"That first night he played for Detroit, I put my feet up by the radio and listened to the game, and pretty soon Gordon was in a fight, all right. And he got in another. The wife was terrible upset, worrying he might kill someone. He got in fights about the first 10 games, and after a bit Mr. Adams [Jack Adams, the Detroit general manager] calls him in and asks, `Howe, you think you've got to beat up the entire league, player by player?' " AbHowe stops here to grin. His eyes are beginning to pale on the outside of the irises, but in the center they are bright. He is clean-shaven and shiny bald on top.
"Gordon started to play hockey then. Mr. Adams, he treated Gordon like a son." Ab smiles; he is 87 and he is going deer hunting in the morning. "Me, I could skate, but I never could shoot. I can't shoot them yet."
That first game was Oct. 16, 1946. The Nuremberg trials were unveiling the full horror of World War II, and Detroit, whose automakers had long since stopped churning out Jeeps and tanks and amphibious trucks, was bloated with unemployed servicemen. Their sweethearts were on a different sort of production line, as the first of a generation of war babies were born. Doc Blanchard led Army to a rout of the University of Michigan, and Ted Williams, the American League's Most Valuable Player, saw his Red Sox fall in the seventh game to the Cardinals when Enos Slaughter scored from first base on a single.
Little notice was taken of a young country boy's debut in the National Hockey League, although Paul Chandler of the Detroit News recognized something of what was in store. "Gordon Howe is the squad's baby, 18 years old," Chandler wrote in his account of the game. "But he was one of Detroit's most valuable men last night. In his first major league game, he scored a goal, skated tirelessly and had perfect poise. The goal came in the second period, and he literally powered his way through the players from the blue line to the goalmouth."
"Power" would become Howe's nickname--the Whalers use it still when they are not calling him "Gramps." As a young man, with those giant hands and muscular back and low-slung shoulders that would be characterized hundreds of times in the next 35 years as "sloping," Howe might have been the prototype for the laborers in Thomas Hart Benton's murals. Yet his tireless skating was his most memorable trademark--excepting the elbows. Says Beliveau, "His stamina, maybe that's what you remember best when you've played against him. He just kept going and going and going."
The '40s were Howe's decade of promise. He scored only six more goals that first season. In 1947-48 he added 16, and in 1948-49, when the Red Wings finished first, he scored 12--hardly spectacular. But country boys keep promises. Beginning in 1949-50, Gordie Howe started a string in which for 20 consecutive years--two solid decades--he finished among the top five scorers of the NHL. So of course virtually every major scoring record became his. He was an institution, as stable in his field as ITT in the Fortune 500, year in, year out, from Truman to Nixon. For 20 years, he played at his peak.
Ted Lindsay was Howe's roommate in those early years, left wing on the Production Line with Sid Abel at center and Gordie at right wing. Lindsay and Howe worked the boards as no players had before them, throwing the puck into the opposite corner at just the angle to make it rebound back out front for the wing breaking in. "We were inseparable," Lindsay recalls. "He was always worried he couldn't make the team. Every year he was tough on left wingers in training camp because of it. He lived to play the game, and nobody was going to get the job away from him. Genuinely, sincerely, he felt he had to worry about his position. He would say, `Gee, I hope I make the team.' Or, `That guy isn't going to get my job. He'll do it over my body.' "
Howe's prairie upbringing taught him that simply because it had been a good year last year didn't mean the rain would fall and the wheat would grow this year. Says Abel, now a Detroit broadcaster, "He'd practice with a bucket of pucks for a half hour by himself after the others were through, lifting the puck up to the top of the net. Once in Boston he skated in against the goaltender, feinted and deliberately tried to put the puck in the top of the net. He shot it right over the goal. But he went behind, dug it out, came back and gave the goaltender a different feint, then put it up top for the goal. He came over to Lindsay and me afterward and said, `That's where the first one was supposed to be.'
"His peak, I think, was when he was about 24, in 1952-53, the year he scored 49 goals. He did score his 50th, too, but didn't get credit for it. He tipped in a goal in Boston on a shot Red Kelly took from the blue line, and they gave it to Kelly, Gordie didn't argue. He had a couple of games left to get his 50th."
At that time the 50-goal mark was like 60 homers in baseball. It had been reached only once, by Maurice Richard in 1944-45, a war year. Much has been made of the fact that Richard scored his 50 goals in a 50-game season, but the fact is that over the entire 70-game schedule of 1952-53 fewer goals were scored (1,006) than in 1944-45 (1,103). In 1952-53 teams averaged a total of 4.8 goals per game, the lowest in modern hockey history. In 1944-45, when Richard set the mark, the average was 7.4 goals per game--the highest in modern hockey history. Howe's 49 actually represented a greater percentage of the total goals scored by the league than Richard's 50.
Despite all the goals he scored, critics contended that Howe didn't shoot often enough, that he was too unselfish. His first coach, Tommy Ivan, says, "I don't think Gordie realized what he could do with the puck. He could have scored more goals. But Lindsay and Abel were so darn great, and Howe handed the puck off because he realized how good they were."
With Howe, Lindsay and Goalie Terry Sawchuk in their prime, the Red Wings rattled off seven straight league championships between 1949 and 1955--a feat still unmatched in the NHL--and won four Stanley Cups. Says Howe now, "You start off winning and you take it all for granted. My philosophy is never start talking about if, and, but or the past, because 90% of what follows will be negative. That's what I regret most, that I can never remember the good times with Abel and Lindsay. You're young and you take it all for granted."
They say one's personality is formed by age 3. Gordie Howe, at 3, did not think of himself as something very special, just another hungry mouth to feed. His whole life he has comported himself as if he were no more than that--one more hungry mouth forced upon the world. This feeling made him one of the world's worst negotiators. "I was sort of a pushover," he says with some understatement. "I used to come into Jack Adams' office and say, `If I'm supposed to be the best player in the league, you can pay me accordingly.' He'd say he would, and that would be the end of it. Of course he never did. Later I found out there were three guys in the Detroit organization itself that were making more money than I was. The only time I ever brought anyone in to help me, it was Lindsay. We were going to negotiate together, but Adams negotiated with us with two words: `Get out.' "
That was the Old School, when contracts were small, one year in duration and not guaranteed; when players kept mum about injuries for fear of being replaced by some hungry kid from the minors. Howe was a child of that school, and Adams was the principal. Fiery, gruff, tightfisted--so much like Ted Lindsay that the two stopped talking--Adams once called Colleen Howe's doctor to ask if he couldn't keep her in the hospital one more day with her firstborn; the Wings had a big game that night. (The doctor declined.) But Adams was something of a father figure for Howe, who has always gravitated toward strong-minded people--his wife, Lindsay, Adams--who do not mind making the off-ice decisions that Howefreely admits he prefers to avoid.
I was a pallbearer for Jack," says Howe. "We were all in the limousine, on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, `I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now he's ... a dead, miserable sonofabitch.' You could hate the bastard, but he was a good man. Deep down he had your best interests at heart.
"Bill Dineen [Howe's coach in Houston and Hartford and now a Whaler scout] has the greatest Jack Adams story. He was in there about a new contract, and Adams was all roses and honey, telling him he was just the type of player the Wings needed--a hard worker; that he wished he had 17 more just like him. And at the end of all this--Bill feels pretty good, of course--Jack says, `So I've decided to give you a $500 raise. Congratulations.' Well, after all those nice things, what could he say? He took it. Only later Bill found out the starting salary in the league had been raised from $5,500 to $6,000. Adams paid him the minimum wage two years in a row."
Years later, Dineen promoted Howe's return to hockey. Gordie retired at the end of the 1971 season, at 43, after the Red Wings had missed the playoffs for the fourth year in the last five; they have made them only once in the eight post-Howe years. He moved into the front office, leading a life he equated with that of a cultivated mushroom: "They kept me in the dark, and every once in a while opened the door to throw manure on me." For exercise, he worked on his golf game and played oldtimers' hockey--no checking, no slap shots.
The Howe story might have ended there had it not been for the birth of the World Hockey Association, which took the sport Howe had converted into a North American game and, in turn, transformed it into chaos. In the summer of 1973, as the WHA prepared for its second season, Dineen's Houston club selected Gordie's two oldest sons, Marty and Mark, in the amateur draft. Both had played the previous winter for the Toronto Marlboros, winners of the Memorial Cup, which goes to the junior champions of Canada, and Dineen called Howe to assure him that the Aeros were genuinely interested in signing the two boys, that they were not just capitalizing on the Howe name for publicity. Howe heard him out, then asked, "What would you think about having a third Howe?" Silence. "Bill? You still there? I asked what you thought--"
"I heard you," Dineen finally stammered. "I wanted to ask, but I had too much respect."
Playing on the same team with his sons had been one of those high goals Howe had set for himself. So, with his wife negotiating, he agreed to a one-year playing contract followed by three years in the front office. But after working himself back into shape--his playing weight today is 206, the same as when he broke in as a rookie 34 years ago--Howe proved himself too valuable to be shunted off to the front office. The man could play. Rejuvenated by his sons--what man wouldn't be? (Rocket Richard told a friend, "Isn't that something, playing with your own sons. I dreamed of that. For me that would be a dream come true")--Howe led the Aeros to the WHA championship, scored 100 points and was the league's Most Valuable Player. Mark was named Rookie of the Year. And, most appealing of all, a whole new wave of Gordie Howe stories appeared, this time relating how Papa would come to the defense of the kids. Marty tells of the time one of the WHA thugs was on top of Mark, and Gordie asked him once, politely, to let Mark up. "When he didn't, Gordie reached down, stuck his fingers into his nostrils and pulled him up off the ice. The guy's nose must have stretched half a foot."
"If I'd failed badly," Howe says, "people would have remembered me more for trying to make a stupid comeback at 45 than for all the other things I did in hockey." Because that's how he would have remembered himself. When the land has been fruitful for 25 years, it counts not if now, with the drought, the farm must be sold. The man lives in the present. To Howe, the only negative aspect of his experience in the WHA was the destruction of his friendship with Lindsay, who--in the brusque Jack Adams style--could say nothing kinder about the return of his old linemate than that it showed what a sorry league he was playing in if a 46-year-old man could score 100 points. Howe took the remark as a personal affront, and three years later, when the Houston club was going under and the Howe family was attempting to relocate, the rift widened. By this time Lindsay was general manager of the Red Wings, a job that Howe had been in the running for, and he criticized the Howes for demanding to be paid by Houston when some of their Aero teammates were being left out in the cold. Lindsay was clearly out of line commenting on a situation he knew little about. Later, when there were reports that all three Howes would like to play in Detroit, Lindsay said he would not give Boston a first-round draft choice for the negotiating rights to Mark Howe. "Can you imagine that?" Howe says, still bitter. "Not giving up a draft choice for Mark?"
So the Howe family moved to Hartford in 1977.
Howe's final aim in hockey, for now anyway, is one that probably will never be realized. His oldest son, Marty--the one who kept Colleen in the hospital one day less than Jack Adams would have liked--was sent down to the Springfield Indians, the Whalers' top farm club, before the start of the season. He has since broken his wrist and will miss most of the season. If, and when, Marty makes it back up, Gordie will probably be in the front office for good.
"It really hurt Dad when Marty was cut," Mark says. "I thought he was going to quit. He almost did."
Gordie now says he wished the Whalers had let Marty play at least one game in the NHL before they sent him down, to fulfill that one final goal. Bill Veeck, perhaps, would have done it that way. But there has been nothing promotional or phony about the Big Guy's final year. No "Nights." No farewell tour. Howe's team has come first. Marty was his single blind spot. On Howe's return to the Forum last month, the Montreal fans applauded his every shift, the routine plays and the occasional surprise, and they looked away when he turned over the puck. Afterward, generally hard-boiled reporters complimented him on a nice game; but it was son Mark, who scored the tying goal, whom they selected as the game's first star. With three minutes left, Mark came gliding effortlessly down the left wing and rifled a shot over the goalie's right shoulder to get the Whalers a tie; he also had killed penalties and assisted on a power-play goal. None of which was lost on Coach Black-burn, the man in the not-so-enviable position should Gordie's magic suddenly be gone. "They came to see Gordie," Blackburn said. "Well, instead of seeing Gordie at 30, they saw Mark at 24. They saw the heritage. A different Howe era."
Which would suit the Old Man just fine. That night, he stood outside the Forum signing the very autograph his sister-in-law had chosen for him so many years back. His son and teammates were off to Crescent Street to celebrate the tie. You cannot imagine what it does for an expansion team to get a tie its first time into the Forum. It was cold, and Gordie's hair was wet. A young boy handed him a program, and Howe signed it over the picture of his son.
"That's not you," the boy protested.
"No, but that's my work."
Howe has always been good with children. He chides and kids remorselessly, and who can guess what must go through their minds? They worship him. He takes a giant hand now, and musses up the boy's hair, a great blond shock. "Look at you with all that hair, and me with so little. That's not very fair."
The boy blushes. Ah, that he, and his hair, might endure so well.