Before the current hockey season began, most experts predicted a third-place finish for the Detroit Red Wings. In mid-season, the Wings suddenly dropped down into a dismal fifth. Now they are back again, comfortably sure of a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs and more than likely to finish in third place as predicted. The explanation of this wavering history? A right winger named Gordie Howe (see cover) was briefly off his game and now is back in form again.
"There are four strong teams in the National Hockey League and two weak ones," says Toronto's sharp-shooting young center, Dave Keon. "The weak ones are Boston and New York. The strong ones are Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Gordie Howe." For all their loyalty to Red Wing Forwards Alex Delvecchio and Norm Ullman, to Defensemen Bill Gadsby and Wayne Hillman, to Goalie Terry Sawchuk and to rising Detroit stars like Doug Barkley, Red Wing fans feel the same way. When Howe is on the ice, Detroit's Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable. Sparks fly among the audience, and—if statistics mean anything—power is generated in the team. Of the 114 goals scored by the Red Wings during the first part of the current season, only 15 were scored by Howe himself, but 54% were scored while Howe was on the ice. Since forwards spend only about 30% of any game on the ice, the implication is clear: Howe makes the Red Wings go.
Few men have stood out in any game as Howe has in hockey. After 18 years and 1,301 games in the NHL, the mere statistical record is imposing enough: eight times on the All-Star team, six times on the second All-Stars, six times the league's Most Valuable Player, six times the league's leading scorer, holder of the record for most goals scored in regular-season play (563), for total points including playoffs (1,398) and so on and so on.
But the quality that has led all but the most sentimental partisans of the great Maurice (The Rocket) Richard to describe Howe without reservation as "the finest hockey player of all time" goes far beyond statistics. Its explanation may lie in the fact that Gordie Howe is fully alive only when he is playing hockey, for Howe off the ice and Howe on it are two different men.
Off the ice, Gordie Howe is a big, lumbering, bashful six-footer who mumbles inarticulately and wears an expression of almost permanent apology. The constant target of every intoxicated bore and loquacious "expert" on the fringe of the game, he answers questions in squirming monosyllables and avoids all contention. Only when pressed will he make anything resembling conversation, and then his efforts at lightness and humor are as clumsy as the movements of a child on his first double-runner skates. In what was for him a moment of rare good spirits after a victory in Detroit a few weeks ago, Gordie told a story about his father. "Some guys," he said, "came up to him and asked him if he was Gordie Howe's father. He said, 'Yeah,' and they offered him a drink. And that was all for him. They must have put something in his drink and then tried to roll him. That'll teach him. The next time anybody asks him if he's Gordie Howe's father he'll say, 'No, never heard of the bum.' "
Although he is now, along with Bill Gadsby, an assistant coach of the Red Wings, Gordie is rarely seen in the company of the club brass. He much prefers the society of his fellow players. When he finally broke The Rocket's longstanding record of 544 regular-season goals in November of last year to become the league's all-time top shooter, his first reaction was: "Thank God that's over. It was getting so the boys wouldn't even have a beer with me." He should have said two beers, because that's all he ever drinks.
So much for the Gordie Howe who" wants to be just one of the boys. Once the whistle has blown, another Howe appears, who differs from the first as a mountain from a plain. This Howe has been variously described in a poll of coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker, the slickest puck carrier and the ablest stick handler in hockey. "He is," according to a longtime opponent, "everything you would expect the ideal athlete to be. He is soft-spoken, deprecating and thoughtful. He is also the most vicious, cruel and mean man I've ever met in a hockey game."
"The trouble is he knows how to shade the rules," says one player on the Chicago Black Hawks. "You do something to him, he won't let on you got to him. But when you come out of the next scramble, you've got four or five stitches you don't know how you got."
A few seasons back the Rangers' Lou Fontinato, then thought of as one of the league's genuine tough guys, slammed Howe into the boards rather too forcefully. Howe objected. Fontinato squared off, and Howe dropped him with a right, smashing his nose. When LIFE later published a picture of the smashed nose, New York's Coach Phil Watson claimed dejectedly that it had shattered the spirit of his club for the entire season. Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe the hockey player that is calculatingly and primitively savage. He is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice. During a recent nationwide TV essay on the rough, tough Black Hawks, Chicago Coach Billy Reay was heard to moan between the periods of a game with Detroit: "What's the matter with you guys? Are you afraid of that guy Howe? Why doesn't someone bust him?" Nobody did.
At 35, Howe's hair is graying, but his body is still sleek and hard. His shoulders dip down like the sides of a mountain, and his arms dangle loosely like the long limbs of a dead tree. He admits to losing a step in his long, rhythmic, economical skating stride, but his skating remains, along with his brilliant anticipation, a striking and captivating feature of the game. Howe's face is smooth and lean and sharply defined, and one has to look closely to detect the thin, jagged lines of scar tissue that crawl over his eyes and lips and nose. In his career he has received more than 300 stitches in his face; he also has suffered the disappearance of an even dozen teeth.
"I had 50 stitches in my face one year," says Gordie coolly. "That was a bad year. I only got 10 stitches last year. That was a good year."
The full roster of Howe's hockey injuries includes damaged knee cartilages, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a shoulder dislocation, an assortment of scalp wounds and a painful ankle wound. In a collision on the ice on March 28, 1950 (he was 21), he suffered a severe skull fracture, and he was in an operating room three hours while surgeons worked to halt a hemorrhage in his brain. Gordie dismisses them all with a casual, "Aw, it's not all that bad." And perhaps it isn't, for injuries are a part of hockey. And hockey is the major part of the phenomenon called Gordie Howe.
Jack Adams, now head of the rising Central Professional Hockey League and for 35 years the blustery monarch of the Red Wings, was the man who brought Howe to Detroit. "It's a million miles from Saskatoon," says Gordie, and he should know. Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, he was taken to Saskatoon at three months and spent his whole youth there. To know Saskatoon is, in a way, to know Gordie Howe. A town of 92,400, all of whom disappear at 10 p.m., Saskatoon was founded by a temperance society. "Is there ever any excitement here?" a native was asked by a bored and discouraged visitor. "Well," came the answer, "we've had a whole rash of killings in the past two years."
Saskatoon is actually a friendly town whose small boys dream of a kind of violence found not in dark alleys but on gleaming ice rinks. The slap of sticks and pucks is an ambient sound, and near every patch of ice parents stand shouting and encouraging and hoping and silently worrying about another stitch being added to a clean, young face. "Gordie Howe was always out there after dark," says Mrs. Bert Hodges, who managed Howe when he first joined the King George Athletic Club's midget team. "He knew what he wanted and he got it. It could be the coldest night of the year, and Gordie would be out there practicing by himself."
"I guess the coldest would be 50° below," Howe says of Saskatoon. "A lot of times it would be 25° below. It would be so cold that if you stuck your head out of the door at night, you could hear a guy walking two blocks away. You know? When I played goalie, I remember I used to skate a mile from my house to the rink, holding the pads up in front of me to cut the wind. At one rink, they had a heated shack, and a guy would ring a cowbell and the forward lines and defense for both teams would go off and sit in the shack by the potbellied stove and warm up while the alternates played."
There in Saskatoon, one sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, 69-year-old Ab Howe perched on the sofa smoking a House of Lords cigar and talked of his son. Mrs. Howe, a pale, gentle woman, sat across the room, her eyes alternating between Ab and the wall. Mr. Howe is a proud, strong man who seems to extract great pleasure from the combat of words or just unstrained conversation. Mrs. Howe is quiet, talks softly and is a sensitive woman.
"Gordie was always such a big, awkward kid," said Ab. "He was always so much bigger than the others. And always very shy. I can recall his brother Vic always yelling at him, 'Gordie, when are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet?' "
"Yes, he was always clumsy as a boy," adds Mrs. Howe.
"Hockey was the only thing in his life," Ab went on. "Any time of the year, any time of the day you'd see him with a stick in his hand. He'd walk along swatting at clumps of dirt or stones. Once one summer I came home from work, and there's Gordie firing pucks at a barrel that was up against the side of the house. Shingles were all over the ground. I had to put my foot down on that. We were only renting the house.
"I remember the first time he tried to join one of the small teams here. They sent him home because he wasn't dressed properly or something like that. I was hopping mad. Ever since I've always told him to never take any dirt from nobody because if you do, they'll keep throwing it on you. That's the way life is. He's learned it all right."
"His first pair of skates?" ponders Mrs. Howe. "Let's see. I believe he got a pair when he was about 6. A lady came to the door with a bag of clothes she was selling for 50¢. I bought them, and Gordie jumped into the bag right away. He pulled out a pair of skates. They were much too big for him, but, I remember, he got four or five pairs of wool socks and got the skates on that way. From then on it seemed he was always wrapped up in hockey somehow. If he wasn't playing he was collecting syrup labels so he could get hockey cards. He got hundreds of them. We still have them put away upstairs someplace.
"He was a quiet boy," Mrs. Howe remembers. "The kids, because he was so big and clumsy, used to call him dough-head. Oh, how that used to make me angry. You know it means stupid, or someone who doesn't know anything. It used to bother him, but he'd never fight with the kids because he always seemed conscious he was so much bigger than them.
"He finished his eight years of grade school, but he failed two times in the third grade. He wasn't bad in school. He always tried. But the second time he failed, it took the heart right out of him. I remember seeing him coming down the street crying. I said, 'Sit down, Gordie, tell me what's wrong. Is the work too difficult? Don't you understand the teacher? Do you ask her questions about what you don't understand?' He said, 'No, ma, I don't want to bother her.' And then we both had a good long cry."
"He was the same when he got older," said Ab. "We were working on the job one day and it was a hot day. So at the end of the day Gordie comes by. The fellow I'm working with says, 'Ab, how about a nice cold beer?' I said sure and then I told Gordie, 'Here, son, go get yourself some ice cream and soda.' Later on we come back and there's Gordie sitting on the curb with the money in his hand. I said, 'What's the trouble?' He said, 'Aw, dad, I didn't want to go in there with all those people.'
"He hasn't changed too much since," Ab continues. "Once a girl was chasing him while he was playing baseball here during the off season. So they were parked one night out in front of the house, and the girl is telling him how much she thinks of him. Gordie, I can just see him, is squirming and then finally says, 'Well, if you like me so much, why don't you let me out of the darn car?"
Howe was 15 when he first left Saskatoon to go to the Rangers' tryout camp. He had never been away from home before, and he had never seen formal hockey equipment. "I didn't know how to put on the pads and protectors," he renumbers, "so I just dropped the gear in front of me and watched the others." When the others teased him about it, the miserable young Howe fled back to Saskatoon. While at home he was discovered by a Red Wing scout and sent to a training camp in Windsor, Ont., where Jack Adams first spotted him.
"It's been a long time," said Jack Adams when asked about Gordie Howe. Then slowly, as if rolling the memories over and over in his mind, he added, "There was this day in Windsor and it was the first day I ever saw him. He was a big, rangy youngster who skated so easily and always seemed perfectly balanced. It tickled me to watch him. So I called him over to the boards and said, 'What's your name, son?' A lot of kids that age choke up when they start talking to you but this one just looked you in the eye and said real easy like, 'My name's Howe, but I'm no relation to that Howe over there.' He was pointing to Syd Howe, one of our leading scorers. I then remember saying, 'If you practice hard enough and try hard enough maybe you'll be as good someday.'
"After we signed Howe for a $4,000 bonus," continued Adams, "he walked out into the hall. Later on I came out, and there he was looking kind of glum. I said, 'All right, Gordie, what's the trouble, something bothering you?' He said, 'Well, you promised me a Red Wing jacket, but I don't have it yet.' I felt like telling him: You want a hundred of them, go get a hundred of them. He was some kid. When he was 15, he was the best prospect I ever saw, and when he reached 17 he was the best pro rookie I ever saw. When he was 22 he was the best young major leaguer around. And now, well, he's the best hockey player anyone anywhere has ever seen.
They used to call him 'Power' on the club, and in practice a lot of the young players would just look at him sort of dumbstrucklike. During an exhibition trip when Howe was unable to play because of an injury, we lost at least $10,000 at the gate. The one thing that always thrills me about his game is the way he keeps doing the unexpected. You can never figure what he's up to. And you always figure when he's on the ice he will tie the game or win it. He was remarkable under pressure.
"In the dressing room before a big game he was always just as cool as he was on the ice. Why, no matter what the pressure, he could pass a cup of tea on a stick across to another player and not shake a bit. He was a cool article all right. In one important game I remember Howe had the puck in front of the goal and was toying with the goalie. I'm hollering, 'Shoot, shoot, Gordie!' It was late in the game and I believe the score was tied. Finally, he slips the goal in and we win. When he comes back to the bench I says, 'For God's sake, Gordie, what were you waiting for?' He says in that drawl of his, 'Aw, Jack, I knew I had him. I just wanted him to make the first move. I just wanted to be sure.'
"I tell you," Jack Adams continued, "I saw the famous long-count prizefight, and I've seen a lot of other exciting sports events in my time, but this fella Howe has given me the greatest thrills of all. And he hasn't changed a bit since the first day I saw him. I hope he never does. He's one of the most natural and unselfish persons I know."
Night after night when there is a game in Detroit, other Howe fans as unabashed as Jack Adams gather in the dark corridor outside the Red Wing locker room in Olympia Stadium to pay their homage. They stand there waiting, the old ones and the young ones, all bunched together like people at an accident.
"Where's Howe?" a boy asked his companion in the corridor last week. "He's sure been in there a long time."
"Don't worry," his friend answered. "Ya ever seen him let anybody down yet? He'll be out."
Finally, the door opened again, and a big, sad-faced man moved out, his eyes blinking rapidly, his head bowed slightly. The left side of his lower lip was swollen. There were six stitches in it.
"Does it hurt, Gordie?" some joker yelled.
"Ya ever see anything like it?" an old man asked as Howe moved down the line of people signing autographs, shaking hands, talking softly, never smiling. "What a wonderful boy! Why, he'll be here a half hour before he's through with this gang. And with that bad lip and all."
"Hey, big guy," a fan shouted from the rear. "Give us a smile."
But the Big Guy does not smile, because there is nothing particularly funny about getting whacked on the lip with a stick in the last 26 seconds of a game that is already won, nothing very funny about waking up in the morning with that lip throbbing and that 35-year-old body aching even if you are Gordie Howe—Howe of the Red Wings, who makes $40,000 a year and lives with his wife, Colleen, in a $50,000 ranch home that is a long way from a 50¢ pair of skates and a "doughhead" alone on a dark rink in Saskatoon.