It was almost 11 o'clock last Saturday night, and as the rest of the spiffied-up New England Whalers were rushing from their dressing room to make last call at some Hartford pub, Gordie Howe lazed contentedly in a whirlpool tub. "Hey, Gramps," Defenseman Alan Hangsleben hollered at Howe, "where's the rubber duck we gave you?" The gray-haired Howe laughed. "I'm 50 years old," he said, "and they give me a rubber duck for my whirlpools."
For Howe, who actually won't turn 50 until March 31, those late-night whirlpools were the best part of a frustrating week as he failed in his attempts to score the 1,000th goal of his 30-season professional career. Howe had scored No. 999 on Nov. 10, and now he had gone a whole two weeks and two days without a goal. Maybe he was over the hill. Maybe old age had finally caught up with him. Maybe Gordie Howe ought to retire and give the game back to the kids, including his own.
"Ah, the goal will come," Howe said. "When I was trying to break Rocket Richard's NHL record of 544 goals back in 1963, I went 12 games before I finally broke it. And I did it with a short-handed goal, of all things, right there in the Montreal Forum."
Howe's quest for No. 1,000 was hardly helped by the hand injury he suffered during a game at Edmonton early in the week. Howe somehow mashed his left hand against the boards, and by the end of the game it was so sore he could not even hold his stick. With Howe sidelined for the next two games, the Whalers lost 5-4 to Quebec to end a 14-game unbeaten streak and were tied 3-3 by Indianapolis.
December 5, 1977
Howe probably should not have played on Friday and Saturday nights when the Whalers lost to Quebec and Edmonton, respectively, in Hartford, but three other New England regulars, including Gordie's 22-year-old son Mark, were out of the lineup with more serious injuries, so Gordie had little choice. On Friday, he fell on the bad hand early in the game, and when he tried to snap off a wrist shot in the final minute he flinched in pain and then watched the puck dribble off his stick. On Saturday it was more of the same, although the Whalers still led the WHA race by seven points over Winnipeg. "The hand really hurts." Howe said. "I can't do anything right."
When Howe is healthy he can still unleash his well-disguised wrist shot—he rarely ever employs that newfangled invention known as the slap shot—with the same quickness and precision he displayed back in 1946 when he arrived in Detroit as an 18-year-old rookie from Floral. Saskatchewan. "When I was a rookie with the Red Wings in 1959. I used to tell people that Gordie was amazing for his age," says Whaler Right Wing Johnny McKenzie. "Now here I am. 40 years old myself, and I'm saying the same thing."
Howe has moved from his old right-wing position to center a line for son Mark and Right Wing Tom Webster. Until he injured his hand he was the Whalers' leading scorer with five goals and 17 assists in 16 games. He has taken a regular shift, worked the power play and occasionally helped kill penalties. And New England's opponents have scored only six goals while Howe has been on the ice. Some NHL loyalists like to pass off Howe's present accomplishments with a "big deal, he's doing it in the WHA and that's not the NHL," but Howe says. "The Whalers were 5-1-1 against NHL teams in the exhibition season, so let's forget that talk."
Remarkably, Howe still ranks among hockey's best on-ice policemen. When Edmonton's Brett Callighen made the mistake of slashing Howe's injured hand during a jam-up after a whistle. Howe reached over another player, picked Callighen up and rudely deposited him on the back of the net. "I don't know if the kid meant to hit me," said Howe, "but I want him to remember that I didn't care for it." Howe also aggravated his injury when he tried to run down Edmonton Defenseman Paul Shmyr after Shmyr's hard check had sent son Mark from the game with bruised ribs.
"Toughness and durability go hand in hand." Howe says. "Injuries and the traveling are what get tougher as you get older, but the game itself is great. I've learned to adjust to the times."
Howe enjoys the locker-room banter about his age. McKenzie, Center Dave Keon and Goaltender Al Smith are the only Whalers who were even born when Howe scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 16, 1946. Howe's oldest son Marty is also a teammate, and another Whaler. Defenseman Gordie Roberts, was named after him. When Roberts was born in Detroit in 1957, Howe already had scored 388 goals for the Red Wings. Forward Jack Carlson constantly asks Howe if his suits were gifts from the 1948 playoffs. "Yeah, I'm as colorful as my clothes, and they're all brown," says Howe.
Mark and Marty call their father Gordie in the locker room and on the ice. "I think if we called him Dad we wouldn't get the puck," says Marty. "I do remember that Mark once hollered 'Dad, Dad' on the ice and Gordie then hit him with a pass and he scored. But that happened just once." Mark's wife Ginger is expecting their first child about the time of Gordie's 50th birthday. "Maybe I'll have to stay around long enough to play with my grandchildren," says Gordie.
Harry Neale, the Whalers' coach, marvels at Howe's commitment to the game. "There's no way he thinks he's someone special," Neale says. Earlier this season Howe played four road games in five nights, then was one of only six players to show up for an 8:30 a.m. practice. "I hid his skates so he couldn't work out," Neale says. "Other men may have the physical capabilities to play at 50, but what makes Gordie so remarkable is the mental part. He knows exactly what he has to do to prepare himself to play." In training camp, for instance, that even meant running—for the first time in Howe's career—two miles each day.
As always, Howe operates on the ice with an air of nonchalance. "Gordie's remarkably economical in his movements, and unbelievably creative." Neale says. "Thirty years have gone by, and he still does something new with the puck every night." Howe acknowledges Neale's comments, then relates them to the Richard vs. Howe comparisons that once fueled endless arguments in barrooms from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
"People used to complain that I was nonchalant on the ice, while the Rocket was like a cobra," Howe says. "But that was my style. The Rocket even told some writers that he didn't think I tried hard all the time. Well, a couple of years ago I ran into the Rocket and he told me, 'Gordie, I guess you really were trying all those years.' "
Predictably, Howe claims that he has forgotten the details of most of his individual accomplishments. "People keep asking me about the first goal I ever scored, so I've tried to remember that," he says. "It was my first game in the NHL, and it came on a little tap-in from in close. But they tell me that Sid Abel had an assist, and I thought I was playing with two other guys."
Howe's all-star team? "Bobby Hull. Guy Lafleur and Richard on the wings, either Milt Schmidt or Phil Esposito at center. Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr on defense, and Terry Sawchuk in goal."
Of course, Howe would be the right wing on anyone else's alltime. all-star team. In 25 NHL seasons he scored 853 goals and had 1,114 assists. He won six scoring championships, five MVP awards and played in 21 All-Star Games. After a two-year retirement Howe moved to Houston and the WHA in 1973, and in his four seasons with the Aeros he scored 141 goals and had 285 assists. "Greatness is measured by quality of performance and durability," says Neale. "Howe is the greatest athlete any of us have ever seen."
What does Howe think?
"Ah, people now figure that I'm nothing special," Gordie says. "They think I'll just retire at 65 like everyone else. My father is 84 and he's still dancing back in Saskatoon. He loves dancing. I love hockey."