Gordie Howe & Sons Unlimited
Heads up! No. 9 is back
The Winnipeg Jet grinned hugely. He was obviously happy being on the same ice with a hockey “immortal,” a live Hall of Famer, Gordie Howe. Not for a moment did it occur to him that Gordie wasn’t just as pleased to be on the ice with him. Gordie wore his famous number nine, Bobby Hull’s famous number, and Bobby was such a nice guy to be on the ice with, boyish, forgiving, patient, masochistic, friendly. Cheerful, full of delight, the Jet (whom 1 shall anonymize) sailed into the shipping lane between Gordie Howe and the Houston Coliseum boards. He could almost have been tipping an imaginary hat in Gordie’s direction.
Gordie’s slant shoulders dipped, his stick made a swift, almost imperceptible pitchfork motion, and the Jet turned Catherine wheel, tumbling limbthrashingly in air like someone rebounding off an overly taut trampoline, sprawled finally like a bumpkin making his first contact with a funhouse chute. Gordie didn’t break stride or so much as look at the spontaneously acrobatic Jet blurring through Houston Aero space. Jettisoned, the Jet awoke howls of blood in the Houston spectators’ throats. Only then did the referee turn.
An NHL referee would have put one and one together immediately — Gordie Howe and a crumpled Jet wreck. The WHA ref had much to learn. Like a London bobby at the scene of an accident he blew his whistle and a couple of stillstanding Jets helped their teammate off the ice. Gordie didn’t cut a notch in his stick. Neatly, and carefully, he peeled a bit of tape off its blade and courteously handed it to the linesman. In the ensuing face-off no Jet came within 10 feet of old number nine. Some learn from experience; others go through life being helped off the ice.
No NHL fan would have been surprised by the Jet’s sudden launching and equally sudden landing. He might have observed that Gordie Howe was a little greyer, and only slightly heavier than in his last season as a Detroit Red Wing in 197071. He would, of course, have heard about Gordie joining the Houston Aeros with his sons Marty and Mark, ex-Toronto Marlboros, in the World Hockey Association’s second big coup (the first being Bobby Hull’s jump to these same Jets from the Chicago Black Hawks). Stories about money abounded — a million for Gordie, half a million each for Marty and Mark, all through the excellent managerial genius of Gordie’s wife, Colleen, chief of the now-famous Gordon Howe Enterprises. Papers and / continued on page 66
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THE HOWES from page 33
magazines told and retold Gordie’s dream — to play on a side with his sons (Mark and Marty if not with 13-year-old Murray). Money and a dream brought Gordie Howe back after two years of retirement.
Stories soon turned to myth. Take that Jet’s unfortunate fall: sportswriters couldn’t see a Jet sailing inelegantly through rink air without putting his demise down to Gordie getting even for something the Jet did to Marty or Mark. Nobody who had watched Gordie in the NHL thought of him as someone in need of a goad. Gordie would have flicked Marty or Mark off in the same fashion were either to turn up on an opposing team. The essence of Gordie Howe was and is his disinterested detachment as he goes about his hockey business. Dullards need butt-ends and jab by elbows to awake in them thoughts of revenge: Gordie Howe was, and still is, a purist. From his earliest days as a Red Wing he simply assumed that certain ice areas were his and his alone: behind both goals, say, and in all four corners, and along a four-foot lane running the length and breadth of the rink. Should some aspiring St. George blunder into dragon turf he would find out instantly that some dragons are never losers. Or, to make the analogy more modern, think about the antisubmarine girdle perfected in World War II. A ship fitted with such a device is plain murder on submarines. Not all ships are so fitted. A submarine would be wise to avoid the ones that are.
Even non-submarines learn to be wise. The next shift Gordie took for Houston was as penalty killer, and out on the ice was Jet Chris Bordeleau, like Bobby Hull an ex-Black Hawk, one whose rookie season coincided with Gordie Howe’s waning years in the NHL. Bordeleau gave Gordie lots of room. Had there been ice on the other
side of the boards, doubtless Bordeleau would have chosen to do his playing there. Other Jets — Bobby Hull excepted — treated Gordie as if he were separated from them by a deep pool. Poke checking, they fished a stick tentatively in his direction, hugging the imagined water’s edge as if afraid to fall
in. Jets seemed to go out of their way to avoid Gordie Howe, a phenomenon I had observed two weeks earlier in New York, when the tarnished Golden Blades paid a last farewell to Gordie in Madison Square Garden (days later the New York Golden Blades became the Jersey Knights; in 1972-73 they had been the New York Raiders; what’s in a name, eh, fans?). Players avoided Gordie but didn’t ignore him.
It was the old NHL pattern all over again. Shunned and rejected, Gordie picked up loose pucks he either passed off to those Aeros able to shoot straight, or himself let go at the net. But here a difference was discernible.
Gordie’s shots don’t zip any more.
Sometimes even his flip pass lacks the snap to hit a teammate’s stick. Arthritis which, combined with injury, made quitting the NHL a wise move, is still with him. Blind mythmakers talk about Gordie as ambidextrous and versatile when they see him poke checking with his right hand, not the hand used by those who shoot right. The explanation for Gordie’s not using his left hand is quite prosaic: pain, and numbness. Cruising his right-wing lane Gordie holds his stick “lefty,” not to prove himself ambidextrous or versatile, nor to showboat, but to take the pressure off his left wrist. Only when he shoots or tries a hard pass does he assume his natural “righty” position. Yet, so gifted is Gordie Howe, so loaded with moxie, craft and talent, that even with that bad wrist, and a bad shoulder, he looks like Wilt Chamberlain on a basketball court with 10-year-olds. Houston, one must say, is not quite Detroit in Gordie’s great days, before NHL expansion; Houston, in fact, is more or less a minor league setting for Gordie and his sons. That, I must tell you, is not Gordie Howe’s opinion. He’s loyal to the WHA, and won’t let anybody knock it.
In Houston on November 28, 1973, with Bobby Hull in town, magazines, newspapers, radio and television, most of which ignored the WHA the rest of the time, swarmed into Houston to see Gordie and Bobby meet head-on. Sports Illustrated sent its top hockey writer and one of its best photographers to do a story on Bobby and Gordie meeting. In most of the papers the WHA was not only minor league (along with several of the NHL’s expansion clubs), it was a joke. Its All-Star game got six-point type mention in the New York Times WHA standings the third day of 1974. Nowhere was a WHA lineup given — not even Gordie Howe’s and Bobby Hull’s presence could bring that off. Earlier in
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THE HOWES continued November, when a reporter in the Madison Square Garden dressing room had tried to get Gordie to say the WHA wasn’t really hockey as he had played it, Gordie wouldn’t buy. The reporter tried another tack, suggesting that the WHA couldn’t cope with even California or the New York Islanders in the NHL.
“If we were in that league,” Gordie said, “we’d win our games.”
“Against Boston and Montreal?” “We’d give Boston and Montreal as much trouble as the rest of the NHL give them. You play serious hockey, you’re gonna win your games.”
“Could Houston make the NHL playoffs?”
“Hell,” said Gordie, “play-offs aren’t the whole story. You come to Houston and see the fun everyone’s having. Not only hockey players but lots of people.” “What about the Stanley Cup?” the reporter insisted.
“What about the Stanley Cup?” said Gordie, and walked off into the shower.
Before the New York game Howe and I walked around Madison Square Garden. A peewee game was in progress.
“This is the age,” said Gordie — and I prepared for some profound comment on hockey development — “that the mothers are cutest.”
We found an empty dressing room. And Gordie began to talk about why he had come to Houston. Around the other players he indulged in the usual forms of ritual chatter common to North American jock life. He’s a fairly easygoing man — though you couldn’t prove it by the Jet whose fate I’ve described. He’s natural, relaxed, and you never have the feeling, talking with Howe, that he’s trying to find the words you want to hear.
But when we were away from the kibitzing and the ceremonial jazz, his resentment over his treatment by the Detroit organization broke out of him. Marty knows this about his father, Mark does too, that Gordie, as the greatest scorer in hockey history, who had played all his NHL life with Detroit, naturally assumed that there would be a place for him in the organization, where he could work, make some kind of contribution. The boys know that if Detroit had come through with style and consideration and humanity, Gordie would never have left the Red Wing or the Norris family organization. Houston — no matter how much Gordie wanted to play on the same team with his sons — would never have seen Gordie Howe. Nor, for that matter, Marty and Mark. With Gordie happy in Detroit the boys might well have played on for the Marlies and then seen what the NHL and WHA offers were like. It was Gordie and Colleen Howe’s decision to cut bait in Detroit that was crucial.
“I’d think I was going into some kind
of executive training program,” Gordie told me, his face angry and disappointed, “and I’d wait for someone to make good on all those promises I’d been hearing. They wouldn’t get in touch with me for days. I expected to get into the insurance business — the number of things I thought were going to happen. And — nothing.”
Once Detroit made him a vice-president, according to Howe, it was content to let him cool it as sheer window dressing. Slowly it got through to Gordie and Colleen that Gordie’s security was not a felt concern of people in and around the Red Wing organization. Slowly they understood that if Gordie —just in his forties and a long, long way from retirement — was going to have an active and financially rewarding life, they would have to do it themselves. Gordon Howe Enterprises, that is, instead of being some form of agribusiness sideline for the Howes, became a serious venture to
sustain and support the Howes, their daughter and three sons.
But Gordie Howe had lived for a quarter of a century as a hockey player. It was inconceivable, to him, and to others, that hockey didn’t have a place for him somewhere. He didn’t want to coach necessarily, but he did want to be closely connected with the team aspect of the game and its organizational side. He wanted to put his hockey to good use. Gordon Howe Enterprises, then, began to consider alternatives for its biggest assets, Gordie Howe and his two OHA star sons.
The WHA was a natural. Since pulling off the Bobby Hull coup the league had been trying hard to come up with an encore. Its well-noised capture of Derek Sanderson had ended up as an armful of flypaper. In 1973 the WHA would make a mark by getting the first Team Canada player to jump the NHL, Whitey Stapleton, who went from one Chicago team to another, its WHA entry, the Cougars, as player-coach. But Whitey Stapleton wasn’t Bobby Hull. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito were out of reach.
Slowly, then, the obvious came to be. Put together Gordie Howe’s Detroit un-
happiness with his love of hockey, his need for financial security, his desire to play with his sons, the WHA’s feeling that it could sign players of junior age (ostensibly because the Howe boys were Americans), the WHA’s need for a dramatic move, solid financial backing in Houston and elsewhere for getting all three Howes at once, and there it was — the hockey story of 1973. Not quite on the level of the combined Bobby Hull jump and the Team Canada-USSR series (without Bobby Hull) in 1972, but a big story nevertheless. The WHA desperately needed good news. And publicity mileage. Publications without the slightest interest in the WHA were interested in Gordie Howe, and what it was that brought him and his sons back to hockey, and to Houston. I, too, was fascinated by the Howes, and terribly curious about the resettling of Gordie Howe in Texas.
Other things interested me as well. How, for instance, were Gordie and his sons going to behave in practice, on the ice, and in the dressing room, where language, as I've indicated in earlier hockey pieces, is brutal and relentless. What I found was that Gordie, like an old NHL pro, uses the usual jock words as verb, noun, adjective: Marty and Mark, to the contrary, at least in my experience, wouldn’t have shocked the most delicate ear with their polite talk. Marty and Mark are both rather shy, and nice young men. At the Houston Howe dining table it’s all as wholesome as a TV commercial for cocoa. Gordie brings a beer to the table, but Marty and Mark are on milk or soft drinks. In New York City, the night before the Golden Blades game, I went up to their room to see the boys. Shortly after 10 p.m., in what tourists call the Big Apple and Fun City, Marty was in bed watching a western rerun on black and white TV. Mark was sort of cleaning up, and just hanging around. Anybody with the notion of a big binge in the big town would have thought he had blundered into a YMCA dorm.
The next day Madison Square Garden, for an afternoon game, looked rather like a workout day for the Rangers, when nobody knew the team was in town. Attendance was announced as 6,432. My guess was 2,000, and if you subtracted those under six years of age, around 800. When a goal was scored the sound was as high pitched as a clown gets doing a tumble at the circus.
The game the kids saw should not have been perpetuated in any way. On TV, between periods one and two, I preferred to talk about Team Canada and the USSR — and I hate reminiscing. Even Gordie and his sons looked terrible. An African or Chinese person brought to hockey for the first time and asked to deduce the point of the game
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THE HOWES continued would have concluded falling on one’s butt was a certain essential, and making sure that when the puck was passed it went on no stick at all or, when absolutely necessary, on the stick of the opposition; he would have concluded further that bodily contact was forbidden, blocking or checking was in bad taste, and special points were awarded for whiffing.
But only two weeks later, when I came to Houston for the Howe-Hull show, things were quite, quite different.
That was apparent the moment I got off the plane and stepped into a cab. The driver, from a small town outside Houston, though white, seemed to have taken a course at the Stepin Fetchit school of etiquette. No matter what I said, or asked, his answer was the same:
The airport is a great distance from the city, and as you come in you’re aware of the odd oil derrick but. even more, of huge ugly outdoor billboards set on derrick-like stilts right on the lawns of small houses.
“Driver.” 1 asked, fairly familiar with American Southern games, “are those houses where black people live?”
After miles of those printed monstrosities, the signs suddenly disappeared.
“Driver.” I said again, “is this where
the white people live?”
My hotel was part of an arcade, shopping complex, underground-overground moneysplurge, featuring Texas’s own high-price emporium. Neiman-Marcus. Its lower floor was built around — a skating rink, but it was real artificial ice. Or. as they say in Texas, ay-u-ss. Skating and hockey were the big things. I soon learned. Since the Howes came to town the number of peewees and olders engaged in some kind of league play had gone from 90 to about 380. Two transplanted Minnesotans, Bill Lund and Paul Brust, had convinced E. Z. Jones, one of the owners of the Houston Aeros, that hockey would be a big thing in Houston. It clearly w'as. Its best peewee club were called the Mah-ty Ma-y-uts (Mighty Mites to us Northerners).
Mark and Marty collect Texas hockey stories. Their favorite one was about the Texas lady they encountered coming out of their dressing room: she was waiting to ask a breathless question.
“That ittybitty thi-i-ing was juz bown-cin’ so crazy out there tonight. You shore you-all didn’ put more air in it this one time?”
Or this one about the goalie: “That there feller out there, he attached to that net so’s the ball don’ get by him?”
Or this one: “That there may-un got
himsailf so iggcited he durn near dropped his mallet.”
But even Houston knew who Gordie Howe was, and what a big thing the city had accomplished to get Gordie and his sons playing for the Aeros. Not a cab driver, not a restaurant employee, a bellboy, a doorman, was without some snippet of information about the Howes, though, I should add. not always reliable. Another cabbie startled me by saying, when I asked him to drive me to the Coliseum. “Say, I sure do li-ike that Bow-bby Hull.” He reassured me almost immediately by adding, “Say, you mus’ know a lil’ ol’ somethin’ about hockey. One thing I never been able to figure out — how many them players they got out on the ay-u-ss at one ta-ime?”
I went to the Jet dressing room to say hello to Bobby Hull, the big man in my hometown. Bobby recently has been complaining about how difficult it is to keep things going with the Jets. But he himself looked absolutely shining. His head wasn’t quite bushy, yet he had clearly had a successful hair transplant job. Thirty-four, he looked in his middle twenties when he grinned — something he was able to do before a Jet game, if not during or after.
Bobby was genuinely glad to see Gordie come out to pose for photographers with him. They shook hands straight,
then did a freedom clasp, faked banging into each other, and when a photographer insisted on getting down on his back to shoot up at the two of them, they both, quite spontaneously, speared the guy gently in the gut. During the game, Bobby several times broke into the clear, fast as ever, waiting for a teammate to headman him at the Houston blueline. The puck never came. Four times Bobby beat the man covering him, slipped the puck to a teammate, dodged his check, wide open, waiting. The Jet he had passed to kept the wanted puck in front of him, dribbling it back and forth as if he were a buyer contemplating a puck purchase. Time after time Bobby did something great, only to have his contribution swallowed up by avid ineptitude all around him. Nobody — not a Hull or a Howe or an Orr —can do it all by himself. Some help, some snap, some rhythm is needed from the other men on the ice. Bobby Hull had taken the tragic leap — out of the NHL and into a hockeyless pit. All game long I kept feeling sorry for him.
But not for Gordie Howe. And not for Mark or Marty either. Gordie never was a wind-up and roar-the-length-of-theice player like Bobby Hull. Gordie didn’t go in for Bobby’s spectacular slapshooting. His way was not to outskate but to outfox. And dent. Yes, dent.
a word Jim Taylor of the Green Bay Packers introduced to sports. Dent recognized the existence of an opponent. A dented opponent was a tutored opponent — nobody likes to be dented day in and day out. Gordie Howe was not only not a rushing madcap Bobby Hull, he wasn’t a crease parker like Phil Esposito or Vic Hadfield either. Gordie got the puck in roughly two ways: either he pursued it and its hesitant possessor into the corners, or he whacked it free, spun his check, nudged him away, gave him a helping elbow, a hip, a thumb, assorted ends of stick. In the NHL Gordie’s message was instantly retrievable: steer clear. With his various techniques Gordie made himself the open man. Gordie’s second way of getting the puck followed from the first. His antisubmarine girdle recognized, he had a clear segment of ice like a halo round his hips wherever he skated. Odds were high that sooner or later the puck would come into that area. Once the puck came Gordie’s way he had lots of plans for it. In 25 years Gordie’s polished method produced 853 career goals — without one splashy Bobby Hull 50-goal season (in 1952-53 Gordie did get 49). That style didn’t need good teammates so much as it needed prudent opponents. Gordie at 45 was doing much better in the WHA than Bobby Hull at 34. At midseason
Gordie stood sixth among the WHA scorers. Not Bobby Hull, not Mark, not Marty could be found in the top 10.
In the game with the Jets, Gordie got two assists, the second his feed for a tipin with only seconds left to play, and the Houston goalie out of his nets. When Gordie shot from the point no Jet was there to check him: it was all familiar. Though Gordie hadn’t made a commitment beyond 1973-74, one would not be surprised to find him playing in 1974-75 — or even beyond that. Houston, early in 1974, with its three Howes, occupied first place in its division.
The key word (apart from money and security) for Gordie in Houston is fun. Gordie likes to be out on the ice. He likes being out there with Mark and Marty. He enjoys being in the dressing room with them and the rest of the guys before and after a game. He is a cheerful dressing room kibitzer, and all the young Houston players, awed by this superstar of superstars, are amazed at Gordie’s style and Gordie’s teasing. After the game, Gordie nudged me.
“Look at Marty,” he whispered. “They got him yesterday. Shaved him good.”
He broke up looking at Marty, the only player in the dressing room wearing shorts. As a veteran jock, Gordie not
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THE HOWES continued only enjoyed but approved the rituals of initiation the Houstons practised. If the guys couldn’t play hockey too well, they could play pro.
“They didn’t do too rough a job,” Gordie said, grinning widely, “but Marty doesn’t feel too cool. The guys found out what brand of shaving cream burns the worst.”
He looked around.
“Hey, Mark,” he yelled to his younger son coming out of the shower, “don’t worry about it. There’ll be lots more.”
Mark had had two easy chances to win the game, but blew them both.
“Look at Mark,” Gordie said, “he’s real mad at himself. Give him a few more years though.”
He stood up on the locker bench.
“Hey, Marty, I never knew you to get your shorts on so fast. You got a date or something?”
Marty grinned good-naturedly. Mark looked sullen. Both boys resemble Gordie. Marty has his upper face, Mark his lower. Marty, though slighter, is built like his father, and may fill out to be exactly like him one day. Mark is shorter, squat, thick, but a fast and elegant skater.
“That Mark,” Gordie whispered, turning his back so his sons couldn’t hear, “we’re drawing up contracts and he goes off for a second with the Houston lawyer. What does the guy come up with? A bonus clause saying that if he gets shaved they got to pay him an extra $10,000. He won’t sign unless they put it in. So they do! I keep telling him — ‘slip some guy a couple hundred bucks to do
the job, and collect.’ ”
Later that night I saw the Howes’ great new house, and the huge unfinished swimming pool and patio. Gordie and Colleen and the boys, Colleen’s old aunt and uncle from Colorado sat around in the dining room going over the game. The walls were covered with paintings of Gordie, drawings, caricatures. He was having his second time around. Detroit had wasted the talents of an unusually gifted man. Houston didn’t seem to be making that mistake.
And yet, as I watched Gordie heave himself aching into his car — refusing to let me call a cab to go back to the hotel — I thought that not hockey alone but all sports fail to do well by the people who make sports thrive. I thought of Willie Mays, crying, speaking into a microphone in Shea Stadium a tortured farewell, a superstar like Gordie Howe, who, injured and hurting like Gordie, couldn’t see the strike zone clearly any more, or get his arm up to throw a ball back to the infield. Immortals with ailing wrists, DiMaggio’s bone spurs, Bobby Orr’s bad knees, Jacques Plante’s fear of flying. Given the fate of most sports stars trying to disengage gingerly, Gordie Howe’s is a happy ending story. He found something better than beating his kids. He joined them.
Houston may not be much as a hockey team, or the city as a hockey town. But seeing the Howes thrive in Texas made me think that they don’t order these matters as well in Toronto, Montreal, New York and, especially, Detroit. ■