Gordie Howe saw Bobby Hull get it across the face with a stick in Detroit one night years ago. "The fellow who gave Bobby that pug nose was as nice a gentleman off the ice as you'd ever meet," Howe said, rocking back in a leather swivel chair in the office he occupies as president of the Houston Aeros. "But in the heat, he laid out with the lumber, and Bobby caught it. You could hear his nose bust from across the arena."
The previous evening, Bobby Hull's Winnipeg Jets had beaten the defending champion Aeros 4-3 in the first game of the World Hockey Association finals. It was the first time Howe, 48, and Hull, 37, had faced each other in a championship series since the 1961 Stanley Cup, when Hull was the scoring leader of the Chicago Black Hawks and Howe was the perennial hero of the Detroit Red Wings.
Now it was a different league and perhaps a slightly different game, if you listened to Hull's opinion of it. But one thing that didn't appear to have changed was the way the two superstars went at it. Howe played full duty on an attack line that included his son Mark. And Hull, skating on a line with swift young Swedes Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, scored the winning goal.
The Jets have nine Europeans on their roster. They are noted for their flashy skating and nifty handling of the puck. For that reason, the Jets have endured a terrific physical assault this year. The thinking on most WHA teams was that the only way to keep up with the Jets was to knock them down and sit on them.
May 30, 1976
By the end of the season, Hull was speaking out against a style of play he considers to have gone beyond violence and become deliberate mayhem. In fact, Hull will soon be appointed to a WHA committee to study the matter. Another committee member will be Gordie Howe. If anybody is an authority on hockey violence, it is Howe. In his career he has spent more than 30 hours in the penalty box, an alltime record.
But Howe and Hull do not exactly agree on the subject of violence. Where Hull sees goons whacking at his young Europeans in a nasty fashion, Howe sees the same old game of hockey. Which is how he came to be talking about the night Hull's nose was smashed in Detroit.
"I never did play hockey like a pussycat myself, and neither did Bobby," Howe said. "Hockey is a physical game. If you get in the way, you're gonna get hit. When it used to really be rough was in the old days when there were only six big-league hockey teams. You had to fight your way onto the club and fight to stay there. The scrimmages to see who would make the team were some of the toughest battles I've ever been in."
Howe smiled. His face is unwrinkled. Somehow his skin has absorbed the thousands of stitches that hockey has put in it, and the scars do not show. Hull has not been so lucky. From a distance, he is a handsome man, muscular and graceful and quick, with a new blond hairpiece covering the thin spot. Up close, though, you can see the price Hull has paid for all those 50-goal seasons. His nose is mashed sideways, scars crisscross his chin and cheeks and eyebrows; his face is bent out of shape. Like most hockey players, Hull has no front teeth.
"Bobby has taken plenty of punishment, no doubt about that," Howe said. "That's not what he's complaining about. He knows in the fire of the moment somebody's lumber is liable to cave your head in. What we have to look into on this committee is the deliberate, continuing offender. I don't deny there are some real goons in our league. I heard one team official bragging about his goons and saying they only carried sticks for camouflage. What Bobby wants to get rid of is what he regards as the constant bloodbath. I'm certainly willing to help him do that."
Hull had said earlier that he thinks violence in hockey is hurting attendance rather than helping it. And he has watched the violence spread beyond the pros. He saw his own 12-year-old son, Blake, rush into a youth-hockey gang battle last fall and come home boasting that his teammates had nicknamed him Dave Schultz, after the notorious intimidator of the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Our style of play at Winnipeg is to concentrate on outskating, outpassing and outpositioning our opposition," Hull said. "Some individuals in this league have put together teams with far more brawn than brains. That's the kind of hockey we want to get away from. With our European kids, we use basic fundamentals of good hockey. Sure, we'll hit you, we'll take you into the boards. But we'd rather play a fast, clever game instead of doing what some teams do—hacking, banging, kicking, thrashing and hoping they can slash a puck into the net now and then. The Aeros will bash you, and Gordie's still got the best elbows in the business, but they're not a goon team."
Houston Trainer Bobby Brown insists that "Gordie Howe is the most incredible athlete in the history of the world." Brown, who was the trainer for the Houston Oilers for 12 years, says, "I'm not taking anything from George Blanda, who's the same age as Howe. But all George does is kick field goals and occasionally throw a pass. Gordie is out there going hard against tremendous athletes less than half his age. And he'll wind up playing more than 100 games in a season that lasts from September until June.
"All in all, I think hockey players are mentally tougher than football players. We've sewed about 500 stitches into our guys this season, and we usually don't even use novocain. One day a puck hit Gordie behind the left ear. Blood flew 10 feet. Knocked him stone cold. In a minute he jumped up and went right on skating as if nothing had happened. He has never lifted a weight in his life, but for his size and age he's probably as strong as anybody in the world."
Howe says there are days when he feels his age and wonders if it isn't time for him to start watching hockey from the stands, the way other club presidents do, and let Mark and Marty, another son who plays defense for the Aeros, uphold the Howe tradition.
"But then there are other days when it all comes together in a flash," he says, grinning. "Suddenly I'm young again and as good as I ever was, and I feel like I can play this game forever."
But what about the rumors that he plans to retire after these playoffs?
"I'm going to start my own rumor," Howe said. "I'll play next year, but my sons are going to retire."