Moments after he helped his kids relieve the Houston Aeros of $1 million last week and boldly proposed a deal to take another $1 million for himself, Gordie Howe shook his head and ordered a Bloody Mary. "Would you believe it?" he asked incredulously. "What a difference from when it all started!"
It had started on an afternoon in 1944 when the late Fred Pinckney, a scout for the Detroit Red Wings, took Howe, a 16-year-old schoolboy from Floral, Saskatchewan, to Eaton's department store in Saskatoon and bought him a suit, a shirt, a tie, a pair of socks and a pair of shoes. The next day Pinckney escorted the nervous youngster to the railroad station and put him aboard a rickety coach for the two-day trip from Saskatoon to Windsor, Ontario, where the Red Wings were holding training camp. A few days later Detroit signed Howe for a $500 bonus, an official Red Wings jacket and a $1,700 salary. "The whole package did not add up to $2,500," Howe said. "But, you know, I still managed to save some money and send it home."
One morning last week Howe, now 45 years old, took his wife and four children from Detroit to Houston on a combination business and pleasure trip. They flew first-class jet, and when they arrived a limousine chauffeured them to the Sonesta Hotel, where the palatial Texas Suite was reserved for them. There was a shiny brass plate on the door that read: "Mr. and Mrs. Gordie Howe." That night Howe took his family to the Astrodome to see the baseball game and, as any kid might, 12-year-old Murray Howe got lost for five innings. Midway through the game the big board in center field flashed a greeting: "Welcome Gordie Howe and Family in Sky Boxes." On the way back to the hotel the Howes were welcomed to "Howes-ton" by the neon message board atop a downtown building.
Then it was time for Howe and his attorney, Gerry Patterson of Montreal, to get down to business. In a calculated move that had shocked the National Hockey League, the Aeros of the World Hockey Association had selected 19-year-old Defenseman Marty Howe and 18-year-old Left Wing Mark Howe in their league's annual draft of professional players. By NHL rules the Howes were still amateurs, members of the Toronto Marlboros and ineligible for drafting by any NHL team because they were not yet 20 years old. As a matter of policy the WHA also has observed that practice. However, at the insistence of Doug Harvey, once a great defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens and now Houston's assistant coach, the Aeros drafted the Howes on the ground that they were professionals. "Marty and Mark are Americans who went to Canada expressly to play hockey for $60 a week, and that clearly made them professionals," explained Jim Smith, the young president of the Aeros. Bobby Hull, among other WHA coaches, vigorously protested Houston's interpretation of the amateur rule, but WHA President Gary Davidson upheld the Aeros. When Gordie and his attorney finally sat down to negotiate with Smith last week, there was little doubt that Marty and Mark would be signing a contract with the Aeros. "I talked to [NHL President] Clarence Campbell about having the boys become eligible for the NHL right now," Gordie said, "but his hands are tied legally. So why should I ask the kids to play for $60 a week in Toronto when they can play for thousands a week in Houston?" Campbell admitted that he "could not quarrel with Gordie's attitude" in the matter of having Marty and Mark sign with Houston, but he and other NHL people hoped the Howe boys would join up for no more than two years and then perhaps jump to the NHL in 1975.
The contract negotiations were short and particularly sweet for the Howes, but not for the NHL. Both boys signed four-year contracts adding up to $1 million. ("The four years was a shock," admitted Campbell.) Mark, who was no worse than the third best amateur player in Canada last season but faced two more years with the Marlboros at that $60 a week, will collect about $140,000 a year, with Marty picking up $110,000. "They both have instant security," their father said. "It is unbelievable." Gordie never earned as much as $100,000 a year until his 25th and final season in the NHL, and it took him some 18 seasons to make what Mark will in the next four.
Reaching a little deeper into their voluminous pockets, the Aeros dangled $200,000 before the living symbol of all that is Gallic, dynastic and conquering in the province of Quebec—Henri Richard. The Canadiens' captain thought that over, then stayed on at $120,000 a year. Other NHL men had started jumping—Montreal's Marc Tardif to the Los Angeles Sharks for $150,000 a year, Boston's Mike Walton to the Minnesota Fighting Saints for $440,000 over three years.
"I hope people don't expect too much from us," Mark Howe cautioned the Texans. "Oh, I don't know what Mark's talking about," said Marty. "I think we both can step right in and help the team."
While both boys seem quiet and shy, Marty obviously has a quick wit. Earlier this year he was asked what Defenseman Denis Potvin (the NHL's No. 1 draft choice who signed a three-year, $500,000 contract with the New York Islanders last week) could do that Bobby Orr couldn't. "Only one thing," Marty said. "Speak French." Asked last week if it would upset him to knock down Bobby Hull, Marty replied, "No, it would be a thrill, really."
Having permanently solved the allowance problems of his two oldest children, Howe then began his own negotiating with the Aeros. Since his retirement as an active player in 1971, Howe has been a vice-president of the Red Wings, charged mainly with counting paper clips and making sure the pucks are properly frozen before a game. "Gordon has a pasture job," claims his wife Colleen. Still, the pasture job pays Howe $50,000 a year—more than any other Red Wing executive earns—and he picks up another $75,000 from outside endeavors, including an endorsement arrangement with Eaton's stores. Howe obviously wants to play again—on the same team with Marty and Mark. "It has been a dream I've always had," he said. "It would be good for them, I think. I know it would be good for me."
Once Marty and Mark enlisted with Houston, Howe gave the Aeros a list of 41 reasons why they should sign him to a four-year, approximately $1 million contract. Items: the publicity value of having the highest scorer in the history of hockey playing in the WHA, a further decline in the sagging prestige of the NHL and stronger bargaining power for the WHA in negotiating television contracts. Howe offered to play for the Aeros next year and then work full time in the front office the following year. In turn the Aeros would give him $500,000 as a cash-advance bonus and pay him $125,000 per year.
"Marty's a defenseman," Gordie said, "so the three of us normally wouldn't be able to play on one line. But we could make a 'one-for-the-crowd' appearance together every so often."
The Houston management was given two weeks in which to accept or reject Howe's proposal. "I think we'll work something out," Smith said. "Right now we are looking at his suggestion from our own standpoint, but we will be talking to the league shortly." If the WHA feels Howe is worth the price, it most likely will assess each member team equally to produce the $500,000 advance Howe has asked. Last year every WHA team contributed $100,000 to Bobby Hull's $1 million bonus, and as Davidson has said: "We got away cheap considering what Bobby did to promote the league."
As Howe expected, his discussions with the WHA have provoked serious concern among those NHL owners and officials who know the difference between a hockey puck and a balance sheet. "We certainly have not cast him away," Campbell said. "Anybody in his right mind would have deep regret if a reasonable effort was not made to retain him. Any other result would be distasteful—a terrible tragedy—as far as I'm concerned. He is a great NHL figure."
Flying back to Detroit, Howe seemed to shift moods every few seconds. In one breath he said, "It's awkward to be negotiating with Houston while I'm still being paid by Detroit, isn't it?" In the next he said, "I hope the NHL doesn't think I'm turning my back on it. I'm not worried about my image; I'll let those 25 years I spent with the Red Wings answer that question." Then, "I won't be jumping, because I'm not under contract as a player. If I go, I'll be sliding." And, "I told Jim Bishop of the Red Wings not to get mad if I have to use the facilities at the Olympia to get in shape for the Aeros. I don't think he liked that too much. Let's face it, money will decide what I do. It's Houston's decision. If they want to have me for what I asked for, then it would be only good business sense to take it. You know, in my scoring-title years and my Stanley Cup years, I couldn't live on my hockey salary. I had to take a summer job. Here I was the star of the world, and I watched my neighbor, a salesman, take his family and his boat away every Friday night for the weekend at their cottage. There I was, supposedly the star of everything, working a second job to get along."
To counter what Howe asked from the WHA, the NHL offered him what Campbell calls a "super P.R. job" for a considerably larger sum than the $50,000 he receives from the Red Wings, but considerably less than the $125,000 he might make each year in Houston. "In the past Gordie has told us he doesn't want to travel anymore," Campbell said. "If he plays, he will have to travel regularly. The job we have offered him also calls for considerable movement away from Detroit. The decision is his now."