Wayne Carleton had taken the puck on a breakaway at the red line of Detroit's Olympia Stadium and there was nothing between the Toronto Maple Leaf left wing and Detroit Goaltender Roy Edwards but a few steaming, mushy yards of opaque hockey rink. Carleton may be excused if he sighed to himself that this goal was surely going to be easy. The only man near him when the puck bounced out to the tip of his stylishly curved hockey stick was Detroit's ranking senior citizen, 41-year-old Right Wing Gordie Howe. The old codger couldn't catch the 23-year-old Carleton with a laser beam. Or could he?
Carleton was underway, shoulders hunched, head down. By the time he had taken half a dozen choppy strides, however, he had company. From that vast wellspring of talent and energy Howe had summoned one more burst of speed. As Howe so often has done, he overtook the breakaway man with a lunge and locked his stick under Carleton's arm. Referee Vern Buffey's arm shot skyward and his whistle grated against his upper plate. But he couldn't blow it until Carleton shot, which he insisted on attempting with Howe clinging to his jersey like another layer of sweat. The puck went astray, Howe went to the penalty box and Carleton returned to the Toronto bench in frustration.
You could make a case for Howe's maneuver against Carleton being the turning point of the Red Wings' victory as a new NHL season opened Saturday night. At the time the home side was ahead 3-1 in the third period but withering in the saunalike atmosphere, and the Wings barely hung on to win 3-2. The heat and humidity drained the snap from the legs and burned holes in the lungs of young and old alike. But there was Howe, opening his 24th season, still combining the grace of Dick Button, the concentration of Arnold Palmer and the raw power of Jimmy Brown. And, more important perhaps, still able to pump up that one grand effort when it was needed most.
Foremost among the four minor-leaguers who will get their first taste of the majors here Wednesday is Gordon Howe, 19-year-old right wing. He is a hard checker and unusually poised. Right wing is weak, but if Rookie Howe continues his preseason play, this flaw will not be critical.
October 19, 1969
That was Howe's introduction to Red Wing fans in a Detroit newspaper of Oct. 16, 1946. Elsewhere in the news of the day, a number of Nazis were to be hung in a prison yard at Nuremberg that morning. Walter Winchell "breathlessly" recommended the movie based on Ernest Hemingway's classic short story The Killers, which was opening at the Adams Theater downtown. (Another rookie was making his debut in that one: it was Burt Lancaster's first film.)
"Most of us were living across the river in Windsor at the time," Howe recalls. "I had a room in the same boarding house with Ted Lindsay, Max McNab, Doc Couture and a few other guys. I didn't have money for a car. Heck, I was lucky to have a room.
"I'd been sleeping in a storeroom in the stadium under the grandstand during training camp. Funny thing is, I nearly slept through my first practice session when we moved into Olympia before the opening game that season. The storeroom where I had my bed was off by itself, and I didn't have an alarm clock. I woke up when I heard the pucks banging against the boards."
Gordon Howe had been promoted to the Red Wings from their Omaha farm club that summer. He had earned $2,500 for his first year at Omaha and had saved $1,800 of it. "I spent all $1,800 putting plumbing in my folks' home in Floral, Saskatchewan."
Gordie came to Detroit for the sum of $7,000—the NHL minimum—moved from the Stadium into the Windsor boarding house and hoped that he would be able to play at least well enough to please the Red Wings' gruff, gravel-voiced manager, Jack Adams.
Howe is the squad's baby, 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.
What happened to the puck? "Who knows," said Howe. "Those days we didn't keep the puck until No. 100 [which Howe did not score until Feb. 17, 1951]. Nobody bothered to save the first one for the rookies then.
"Actually, the first night was pretty much like every other night for me. I drove over with Couture and McNab and ate dinner at Carson's restaurant, which used to be across the street from the Olympia on Grand River and McGraw. Hamburger, I think. I didn't figure I'd get to play much, so I wasn't especially nervous. I remember standing there during the national anthem, counting to myself, '15-2, 15-4, 15-6,' trying to figure out how to score a cribbage hand. The older guys were teaching me the game, and they moved the pegs so fast up and down the board that it confused me."
The first of Howe's parade of more than 700 NHL goals came at 13:39 of the second period of the October 1946 game with the Leafs. Sid Abel took a pass from Adam Brown, fired a shot, and Howe put the rebound under the Leafs' goaltender, Turk Broda.
In 23 seasons Howe was to score 731 more times against 52 NHL net minders and helped set up no fewer than 954 teammates' goals with assists.
"I may not remember much about the goal I scored that first night," Howe recalls, "but I've got a couple of souvenirs. I lost two teeth. One got knocked out when I caught an elbow in a corner, and another went dead after that game and I had to have it pulled. But, what the heck. Every hockey player loses teeth.
"That first night I'm on the bench and Jack Adams shouts, 'Syd, Syd, get in there." Nobody moves and he's furious. Finally, he looks right at me and shouts it again. "I'm not Syd,' I told him, but all Adams says is, I don't give a damn, get in there anyway.' "
You can mark it down in your hockey books that within two years a forward named Howe will be playing for the Detroit Red Wings, and he won't be Syd Howe. He'll be a rightwinger named Gordon Howe.
But to most people Gordon Howe was just another tough kid from the prairies. Who could tell then that he might emerge as the most prolific scorer in the history of the game, greater even than the lengendary Maurice Richard; that his life and career would be prodded and probed by mass media the world over; that he would be the only hockey pro to bridge the gap between Glenn Miller and Tiny Tim, between zoot suits and microminis.
At first Howe wore No. 17 on his jersey. "I liked 17," he says, "because I'd worn it at Omaha, where I'd been a real flash, but our trainer, Carl Matt-son, told me I should take No. 9 when Roy Conacher left because it meant I would get a lower berth on the trains. We didn't fly much then."
After Saturday's game, when Howe's 24th opener was just another line-to-be in the eight pages his record occupies in the Red Wings' press book, Gordie stripped off his jersey and stood in the center of the dressing room looking for all the world like Dorian Gray—a 41-year-old man with the body of a 25-year-old. There was a large red lump on his left collarbone where he had stopped a shot late in the game.
"You know," Howe said with a smile, "the funny part about those first years in pro hockey is that I could save all that money. Now a guy makes fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year and is lucky to save five hundred."
In a corner of the dressing room near Howe, Defensemen Gary Bergman and Carl Brewer were removing their gear. Brewer is new to the Red Wings this year. As Bergman and Brewer conferred, Left Wing Frank Mahovlich passed by on his way to the shower.
"Way to go, big fella," Brewer called, slapping Mahovlich—who had scored the winning goal off Carl's setup pass—on the buttocks. Bergman frowned and corrected his teammate.
"Carl," Bergman said, "you better find another name. There's only one big fella on this club."