Two seasons ago, in a game in which the Detroit Red Wings were trailing the Chicago Black Hawks by a goal and with only seconds remaining in the third and final period, the Wings' superlative right-winger, Gordon Howe, corralled the puck at center-ice and drove deep into Hawk territory. "Shoot! For heaven's sake, shoot!" bellowed Jack Adams, Detroit's veteran general manager.
Calmly, almost languidly, Howe held his shot, stickhandled across the ice and cut in from the other wing.
"For Pete's sake, shoot, shoot!" Adams cried despairingly, one eye on Howe, the other on the second hand of the stadium clock. Again Howe held back his shot in favor of faking a defenseman between himself and the goal, and then took a lazy half-stride in the midst of which he flicked the puck low and hard past the Chicago goalie. The buzzer, signaling the end of the game, sounded a split second after the puck had bulged into the cords at the back of the net.
January 24, 1955
"Gordie! Gordie!" Adams stammered in the dressing room after the game, thumping his palm to his forehead in the gesture of barely controlled exasperation made famous by Edgar Kennedy. "Gordie, you had two good shots you didn't take. What were you waiting for?" Howe waited a moment, then another, before answering. "Well," he finally drawled, "I guess I jus' wanted to make sure."
During his nine seasons with the Red Wings, Howe's unruffled, unhurried, Sunday-stroll-through-the-garden approach to the vigorous business of big-league hockey has periodically produced large lumps of anguish not only in the turbulent larynx of Jack Adams but also in the hearts of all good Detroit fans. Howe undoubtedly possesses the completest natural talent of any modern hockey player, and what bothers the Detroit fans is the recurring dream of the prodigies he could perform if only he could light a fire under himself each time he steps on ice—as Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens does without conscious effort, or, to name two others, "Teeder" Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Howe's teammate Ted Lindsay, "Old Forever Furious." In the meantime, they put up as best they can with Howe just as he is. For some he is, with Richard, one of the two greatest players in the game; for others, the greatest.
HOWE'S AMAZING RECORD
The members of this latter persuasion find the record book an articulate confederate. Each of the last four seasons, Howe has led the National Hockey League in scoring, in 1950-51 with 86 points (43 goals, 43 assists), in 1951-52 with 86 points (47 goals, 39 assists), in 1952-53 with a record 95 points (49 goals, 46 assists), and last season with 81 points (33 goals, 48 assists). No other player has ever led the league more than two years in a row. This season, on top of a slow start, Howe was forced by a shoulder injury to sit out eight games—incidentally the first league games he has missed in six bruising 70-game seasons. Since his return, despite the absence of Lindsay, his old line-and playmate who has been out with a bum shoulder, Howe has been moving at the pace of a goal and an assist a game, and before the season ends he may well catch the leaders, the ageless Richard and "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau, two young Canadiens who have been having immense winters.
The Red Wings annually are a well-balanced team, anything but a one-star outfit, yet it was only after Howe came into his maturity as a hockey player (at the age of 21) during the 1948-49 season that the club began its long, uninterrupted reign as the champions of the National Hockey League. For six straight years now the Wings have won the NHL pennant and have come to be regarded as the Yankees of hockey. Year after year, their only serious competition has been provided by Les Canadiens and the Leafs, with the other three teams—the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Black Hawks—habitually bogged down at the bottom of the standings, in what amounts to a league of their own to determine which one of them will limp into fourth place and so qualify for the Stanley Cup play-offs, the approximate World Series of hockey. This year, as the teams enter the final third of the schedule, the same old picture obtains with but one major modification. Les Canadiens, 30% stronger than last season, have an excellent chance of making this the year when the Detroit dynasty, like the Yankees', will at length be overthrown. Toronto has slipped a discernible notch.
The most spirited rivalry in hockey for many years was between the Leafs and Les Canadiens, a natural extension of the traditional contentiousness between the two cities (which reached something of an apex not so long ago when a Montreal newspaper announced a contest, first prize to be one week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto). In any event, this ancient hockey rivalry has tapered off, due partially to the rise of the Wings and partially to the decline of the Leafs into a team which specializes in defensive positional play and is content, after scoring a goal, to sit back and play kitty-bar-the-door hockey as it attempts to make that goal grow larger and larger as the game clambers on.
In this day when superstars are becoming scarcer and scarcer, Detroit has four: Howe, Lindsay, Defenseman Leonard Patrick (Red) Kelly, and Goalie Terrence Gordon (Terry) Sawchuk. Curiously enough, of this quartet, only one, Sawchuk, was lined up all the way by the Detroit organization. The Leafs could have easily snagged Lindsay, who attended St. Michael's College in Toronto and was regularly on view playing with the school team in the Maple Leaf Gardens. With Detroit, Lindsay has been rated the league's All-Star left wing six of the last seven years. The Leafs had the same opportunity to land Kelly, who also attended and played for St. Mike's. With Detroit, Kelly has developed into the best defenseman in the league. An intelligent, graceful, superbly conditioned athlete, the All-Canadian Boy if there ever was one, Kelly, in the words of Fred Huber, the Wings' erudite publicity director, "can maneuver the puck with his skates better than most players can with their sticks." In an early-season game with the Bruins this year, Kelly scored three goals, the first defenseman to achieve "the hat trick" since Happy Day did it some two decades ago. In the offseason, Kelly returns to the village of Simcoe, Ontario, where his family has owned tobacco and fruit farms for four generations, and prepares himself for another hockey campaign by working in the fields, covering about 14 acres a day as he primes an average of 1,200 "sticks" of tobacco.
And the Rangers—most ironic of all—could have had Howe. When he reported to the Rangers' try-out camp in Winnipeg, Gordon, one of nine children of a cement contractor, was a gangling boy of 15, a shade more deer-eyed than usual since it was his first trip away from his home in Floral, Saskatchewan, a granary depot on the rim of Saskatoon. He spent four days at the Rangers' camp, and no one noticed him. The next year he attended the Wings' try-out camp, and from that point on his progress was rapid: a season attached to the Gait junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association; a final seasoning season with Omaha in the U.S. Hockey League; then up with the Wings. Howe scored his first major league goal against Turk Broda. "It wasn't very fancy," he was remembering recently. "I just shoved it in. It was on his right. My left. I wrote many a letter home about that one."
In his second season Howe was moved up to form Detroit's first line with the veteran Sid Abel and Lindsay. The trio soon became the most powerful line in the game. Abel had one beef to register about his right-winger's style of play. "I don't mind this great stickhandling of yours," he told Howe one day, "but why stickhandle around the same player three times!"
If the Rangers failed to spot Howe's tremendous potential, it is somewhat, if not entirely, understandable. Even today, Howe is an extremely deceptive player. A few of his attributes are easily observed: he has a quick, fast, beautifully disguised shot; he is the best man in the business from 15 to 20 feet in front of the net; he can skate all night, both ways; for all of his old-plantation temperament, he can be rough and petulant on occasion; he plays his best hockey after he has been pushed around, and opponents are wise to treat him courteously; generally, he comports himself as if he had no idea he is one of the game's great stars. On the other hand, a large number of Howe's exceptional talents are almost invisible save to the true aficionado.
"Gordie is the Charley Gehringer of hockey," his old coach, Tommy Ivan, once remarked. "By that I mean that he has both the ability and the knack for making the difficult plays look easy, routine. Richard—you can't miss his skill, it's so dramatic. Gordie—you have to know your hockey or you won't appreciate him."
Howe, for example, has a long, gliding stride which he can accelerate so effortlessly that even when he skates clean away from the opposing forwards and then circles a defenseman, he seems to be moving slower than they are. When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone, doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot.
Also invisible is Howe's great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete's forearm. Oddly enough, or not so oddly in Howe's case, the two most theatrical exhibitions he has ever given of his power and coordination took place off the ice. A short time ago a Detroit newspaperman took Howe, a new-to-the-game golfer, to a local course to see how he compared as a distance hitter with Dizzy Trout, the old Tiger pitcher, and Chick Harbert, the current PGA champion, both of whom are extraordinarily long off the tee. Howe outdrove them both.
The other demonstration took place a few Septembers ago when Lou Boudreau, then managing Cleveland, dropped in to watch a Red Wings practice the morning before a ball game against the Tigers. "Lou, I think I could hit big league pitching," Howe told him lazily. Boudreau invited him to come on out to the park that afternoon and they'd find out quickly enough in batting practice. With Sam Zoldak, a pretty good man, throwing them in, Howe lined the third pitch into the left field bleachers.
THE RED WINGS' BENCH
Red Kelly (right) and Gordon Howe catch their breath between turns on the ice. For other color shots of the Wings and their rivals in action, see the following pages.
The Detroit Red Wings (in the bright red uniforms) have reigned as the Yankees of postwar hockey. Over the last six years, they have won the National Hockey League championship six consecutive times and three times have gone on to win the grueling Stanley Cup matches played after the close of the regular schedule. The Red Wings invariably present a strong, energetic defense, as the photograph above illustrates—Dean Prentice of the New York Rangers is met by Defenseman Benny Woit (No. 5) as he tries to drive in on Red Wing territory, already densely populated with back-checking Wings.
On the attack, the Red Wings in general play a slam-bang, puck-hounding game, relying on manpower rather than on finesse to wear down their opponents. Their offensive sorties frequently have the advantage of a "fourth forward," the great Red Kelly, perennial All-Star defenseman and a natural play-builder, shown at right (No. 4) as he leads a rush toward the Rangers' goal. Three of the last four seasons, Kelly has ranked among the top ten scorers, the only defenseman to climb into that exalted circle.
In recent Toronto-Montreal game, hard played as are all their clashes, Maurice Richard (white jersey) scrambles to get his stick on a loose puck which has just bounded off Goalie Harry Lumley, the only one of the Toronto players who has located its whereabouts
In melee in front of Canadiens' goal, Dean Prentice (white jersey), young Ranger forward who has played especially well in recent games against Montreal, battles for control of the puck with substitute Goalie Charley Hodge, "Spider" Mazur and Bud McPherson