The puck came off the pads of St. Louis' Goalie Glenn Hall and onto the stick of Detroit's Gordie Howe. There was a scramble around the goalmouth, Blues and Red Wing players colliding and cursing and falling—circumstances that can unnerve the best of goal scorers, who tend to fire either wide of the net or straight into the goaltender sprawled helplessly on the ice. But not Howe. He casually centered the puck on the stretch of black friction tape encasing the blade of his stick, paused for a split second—almost seeming to savor Hall's desperate state—then drove the puck high into the near corner. The Thanksgiving night crowd of 13,905 in Detroit's Olympia Stadium exploded into a roar, paused long enough to hear, "Detroit goal, his 11th of the season and 699th of his career...." And then roared again.
Hockey has a number of superstars but only one superman, and he is Gordie Howe. Last week this finest of all hockey players scored three times in two games to come within a single goal of an achievement that has virtually no parallel in North American sport. Those scores—two against Philadelphia plus the one against St. Louis—brought Howe to the brink of his 700th regular-season goal. It is entirely unlikely that any hockey player will ever again score so many; indeed, the man nearest Howe, Montreal's immortal Maurice Richard, retired while still 156 goals short of the 700 mark.
The one record that bears comparison with Howe's is Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, and it is a fascinating oddity that the man nearest him, Willie Mays, like Richard, is more than a hundred behind—and near the end of his career. Ruth was also 40 when he hit No. 714—his third of an historic game—over the right field roof at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but he trotted around the bases on wasted legs, and his teammates secretly hoped that he would quit.
Unlike Ruth at 40, Howe remains the heart of his team. Well into his 23rd NHL season, the big guy (6 feet, 205 pounds) is still killing penalties and serving on the power play, as well as taking his regular turn on a line with Frank Mahovlich and Alex Delvecchio. He came off the frozen plains of Saskatchewan as a gawky, rawboned teen-ager to score his first NHL goal in October 1946—on the day the Queen Elizabeth began her maiden voyage as a passenger ship; last week he was closing in on No. 700 as the Queen Elizabeth II slipped down the ways, her predecessor outmoded, retired, a memory.
Average hockey players slow down or quit in their late 30s. Howe, despite injuries ranging from dislocated shoulders to broken ribs and toes, has missed but 20 of a possible 1,391 games since 1950, and has either scored or assisted on one of every three goals the Wings have made since the spring of that year.
How long will he last? "I'll definitely play through 1970," he says. "After that, well, it will all depend on how I feel. I used to be strong every night—no problem—but now I've really got to work at it."
"He's been all hockey since he could walk," says Gordie's blonde wife, Colleen. "He keeps wondering when his legs will start to go; other players have told him that's the first sign."
"I sleep longer these days and watch what I eat," says Howe. "If we're playing at home Colleen just tells me what room to take, I take it and she and the kids more or less leave me alone."
"It's a conditional thing," says Detroit General Manager Sid Abel. "The man is playing as well as he did five years ago, but we just have to remind ourselves that he's 40 years old. He could go on for God knows how long—or those legs could give out on him next week."
"Nobody could take better care of himself than Gordie does," says Oakland's Doug Roberts, once a Red Wing roommate of Howe's. "He doesn't smoke, and he won't drink anything stronger than beer. He knows exactly what his body needs and he makes sure it gets it. For Gordie it's always the same: go to bed, get up for the team meeting at noon, eat at 2 o'clock, take a walk, then back to bed until time for the bus to the game."
The aura of health is obvious even to those in the stands, but what they go to see is Howe the goal scorer, flicking his huge wrists with a silken strength, a mongoose quickness. Chicago's Bobby Hull is famous for a slap shot that has been timed at 118.3 mph. Howe's wrist shot—he doesn't waste time winding up—sizzles in at 114.2 mph. It is the game's most accurate shot, and Howe, the only truly ambidextrous NHL player, can score with equal facility from either side of his body. He uses a 21-ounce stick of Canadian ash with only a slight bend in the blade and an extremely stiff handle. "Give Gordie a stick with an ordinary handle," says Trainer Lefty Wilson, "and he'll break it like a toothpick. He is so strong that when he shoots, that handle bends like a banana."
As he cruised Philadelphia's Spectrum and Detroit's Olympia so effortlessly last week, barely lifting his skates from the ice, conserving energy for the big moments, Howe was rarely bumped or prodded. He has won that freedom from harassment by dealing out retribution with stick and elbows—discreetly, painfully—to anyone who fouls him. Howe averages only about 65 minutes in penalties a year, which is far below the norm for hockey's "bad men."
"The only way to stop Howe is to crowd him, stop him before he gets started," says Detroit Defenseman Kent Douglas, "but nobody wants to crowd Gordie. Nobody even wants to get near him."
"My first game in the NHL was against the Red Wings," recalls Oakland's Bryan Watson. "I was with the Canadiens then, and they threw me out to kill a penalty. I went into the corner with Howe, knocked him down from behind and skated away with the puck. I hadn't gone very far before I heard heavy strides coming up behind me, and then I felt a stick slipping under my arm. Then there's the blade—not an inch from my nose. It's Howe, and he says, 'Check out, junior.' I got so scared I fell down."
Howe's surgical touch with the stick would not make him the menace he is without the physique behind it. Howe has the long, thick neck and sloping shoulders that have distinguished a number of powerful athletes, among them Joe Louis, Paul Hornung and Stan Musial. Howe's neck measures 17 inches, and his arms are so long the shoulders of his jackets must be padded to give definition to his upper body.
Strength, shot, savvy—all these are combined in Howe with a deep, smoldering drive never to be beaten. "Gordie has simply got to be first," says Doug Roberts. "With him there's no other approach. Even in practice you take the puck away from Gordie Howe and you'd better get ready for some sore wrists, because he's going to come after you and get it back."
Being the best has not made Howe rich—or perhaps it should be said that Howe has not extracted from hockey all the money he might have. For years he was content to accept salaries in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. But in this new age of stars driving hard bargains—and amid rumors of an astronomical contract signed by Boston's kid defenseman, Bobby Orr—Howe has finally gotten a little tough with the Detroit front office. A few days before the season began he had a long talk with Bruce Norris, the Red Wings' owner, and emerged with a two-year contract and a big raise that increased his salary to approximately $75,000 a year. Along with the raise he was offered a vice-presidency in a Norris-owned insurance firm.
Howe drives a maroon 1968 Buick and lives with Colleen and their four children in a $50,000 split-level home—modest for a superstar—in suburban Birmingham. He operates an ice rink nearby and earns additional income from endorsements.
"I'm really just a lucky old farm boy," Howe says. "I remember when I came up I cut out all the newspaper pictures showing me in a Red Wing uniform just to prove to everyone that I played in the NHL. At first all I ever wanted to do was stick around for a while, but as time went by I decided I'd play 20 years if it killed me. I'll play as long as I can keep up with the scoring leaders."
Hockey without Howe will be like the Atlantic without Queen Elizabeths, but the time will come for him to quit, and when it does Howe will not try to prolong his career into a Ruthian twilight.
"Everybody has always expected so much from Gordie," says Colleen Howe, "and he's never let them down. I just hope it's remembered when his legs go."
It will be. A number like 700 is a little hard to forget.