Ice hockey can be a harsh and demanding mistress. It often treats its men badly, rewards them less than most big-time sports, exacts from them an enormous nightly expenditure of effort and, in the end, leaves them as a keepsake hides hemstitched with a sampler of brutal encounter. Yet, like the femmes fatales of romantic fiction, it weaves a spell that few can escape. Old hockey players may die like everyone else, but they resolutely refuse to fade away. On the following pages are 10 who are in or past their 15th year of pro hockey. None is a superstar. None is rich. None plans to quit.
Once mean and tough, the Montreal Canadiens' Henri Richard, a 15-year veteran at 34, says: "At my age, I don't fight much anymore. I try to talk people out of it."
After 18 years, cheerful New York Ranger Ron Stewart, 38, still waits for the day when his picture will hang in every Canadian rink "as big as Queen Elizabeth's."
Not once on a Stanley Cup team after 18 years of trying, Dean Prentice, 38, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins, still says: "Well, you always hope you can win a cup."
Bobby Baun, 34, estimates that 15 years of hockey have left him with 500 stitches on his neck and head alone. He once played with a broken leg in a Stanley Cup game.
Norm Ullman, 35, who plays for a loser, admits that, after 15 years, "It's tough preparing for games. Sometimes you say, 'What's the use?' But you don't give up."
At 37, Doug Mohns, a 17-year veteran who "feels like a rookie," is the only oldster to hide his years under a toupee. "If you lose teeth, you get new ones. Right?"
Young Bruins call 35-year-old Johnny Bucyk "Gramps" now. "I don't mind," says this Bostonian of 14 years. "When I joined this club I was one of the youngest."
Each year for three years, George Armstrong, 40, has tried to quit hockey. Each year he has come back. "I was bored and couldn't find anything to do to kill time."
Harry Howell, 38, played for 16 years in New York when the Rangers were losing. Now the Rangers are winning, he's in Oakland. "It's not much different," he says.
For most of his 20 years, Detroit's Alex Delvecchio, 39, played brilliantly in the shadow of Gordie Howe. At the start of his 21st season, he found a rookie coach was telling him when he could smoke his postgame cigar.