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The miracle worker

If hockey ain’t what it used to be, Gordie Howe is

Robert Miller January 23 1978
Closeup

The miracle worker

If hockey ain’t what it used to be, Gordie Howe is

Robert Miller January 23 1978

The miracle worker

Closeup

Sports

If hockey ain’t what it used to be, Gordie Howe is

Robert Miller

It is late in a game long since won by the New England Whalers (final score: 7-2) but the inappropriately named Soviet AllStars keep skating, skating, skating. As the Russians buzz around goalie Al Smith, the Whaler defense looks momentarily bewildered. Coach Harry Neale taps the famous sloping shoulder and Number 9 is over the boards, chugging into the action. Whap! Down goes a Russian. Crunch! Down goes another one. And suddenly, here’s Gordie Howe, gliding sedately up the right wing, the puck his by the divine right of elbows. The Russians give chase and, over on the left wing, a young Whaler named Mark Howe cuts across the blueline, heading for the net. The pass, of course, is perfect. Mark Howe scores, with an assist from Dad. Later still: the Russians are again storming the Whaler net and, in the space of a few seconds, Number 9 goes down twice to block shots with his body, an assemblage of bone and muscle and scar-tissue so extraordinary that one day it surely must be cast in bronze or ensconced in the Smithsonian. The game ends, and Soviet coach Boris Majorov just shakes his head in wonderment while Number 9 stands there, grinning, blinking back the sweat.

Gordie Howe, in his fiftieth year, blocking shots against Russians? “Aw well,” he says later, “you just kinda get into the game and it just kinda happens.” And the body checks? “Yeah, well, I guess I drilled a couple of those guys.” Drilled. That’s Gordie Howe’s word for what he’s been doing to enemy players in various leagues ever since Black Jack Stewart was a household word, since the only murder done in Detroit happened in the Olympia during Red Wing games, since, in fact, the Russians were our allies. A thousand goals ago.

The night the Whalers played the Soviets in the Hartford, Connecticut, Civic Centre, Howe was honored in a pre-game ceremony for finally having scored number 1,000 (regular season and play-off. National Hockey League and World Hockey Association). The 10,000 fans gave him an ovation and two of his teammates presented him with a commemorative gold puck. The teammates, of course, were his sons—winger Mark and defenseman Marty. On and off the ice, the Howes like to keep it all in the family. And why not? It’s quite a family. Gordie is a certified marvel, his sons Mark and Marty are certified professional hockey stars, third son Murray is a certified scholar as well as an up-and-coming hockey player himself, daughter Cathy is the certified apple of her father’s ever-blinking eye as she completes

her high school and plans a summer wedding, and wife/mother/chief cheerleader Colleen, well, Colleen is the glue that holds it all together.

Half a century on, Gordie Howe is having the time of his life. He’s also playing some excellent hockey, albeit in what is a somewhat less-than-excellent league. As mid-season approached, the Whalers were solidly in first place in the WHA and Howe was the team’s leading scorer, despite an injury-plagued 10-game stretch during which he was frustrated in his search for number 1,000. It came, finally, on a power play in Birmingham, Alabama, which is in the heart of Dixie and which says something about what is happening to Old Man Winter’s game those days.

For the Howes of Detroit, Houston and now Hartford, it has not all been fun. There have been hurts, both physical and mental, and feuds, both corporate and individual. The family left Detroit hurt, but hopeful. It left Houston angry, but determined. It has settled, now, in Connecticut—Gordie and Colleen live in a big house on a 16-acre estate—and claims to be happy at last. Fame, fortune and Gordie’s elbows have sustained the family, and now the family as well as the New England Whalers sustain Gordie. “His whole life is there in the rink, in the dressing room,” says Colleen. “He can’t wait to get to practice, just to see what some of the younger members of the team will do or say next. Then, he can’t wait to get home to tell me about it. There are a lot of characters on this team, and they’re always poking fun at

Gord. Why, the night he got his thousandth (WHA president) Howard Baldwin asked Gordie to say a few words in the dressing room after the game, and do you know what they did? They gonged him! Gordie loved it.”

Not surprisingly, the players love Gordie. It is quite incredible that only three members of the Whalers—centre Dave Keon, winger John McKenzie and goalie AÍ Smith—were even born when Howe scored number one against Turk Broda

and the Toronto Maple Leafs, back in 1946. Says Keon, who is a pro’s pro and who played against Howe in the NHL for 11 seasons: “He’s a fantastic guy, not just as a hockey player but as a man. The kids on this team are really overwhelmed by his presence.” McKenzie, who is 40 now, has

polished a favorite line about Howe: “When I broke in with the Red Wings in 1959 I used to tell people Gordie was amazing for his age. In 1959! And here he is, still amazing.” His coach, Harry Neale, says bluntly that Howe is the “greatest athlete any of us have ever seen.”

Watching Howe in his green track suit, practising one morning in Birmingham, Johnny F. Bassett, president of the Birmingham Bulls, chuckles: “He’s unbelievable, like a great big kid. Look at him out there. Never misses a practice.” This particular morning, the team has divided itself into U.S. and Canadian citizens for a loose scrimmage. Gordie is playing defense, teasing the kids, tripping them up, giving them gentle elbow massages. They shout back fearsome and unprintable insults. Every time the U.S. players score on Gordie and the Canadians they line up on the blueline and sing The Star-Spangled Banner.

Alas, the fun will soon be over for Gordie Howe, native of Floral, Saskatchewan, and subject of as many legends as he is author of goals. “This is definitely it,” Howe says. “I won’t play next year.” A thousand goals and a million miles are enough. Next season he’ll help the Whalers recruit and develop talent, spend some time selling steel for the Fitzsimmons Steel Co. of Youngstown, Ohio, and leave the playing to the kids. Of course, Howe has retired before, only to feel the itch again in September and to decide that maybe he ought to lace them on one more year and go out and drill a few people.

Other sports have had their geriatric marvels. Onetime quarterback George Blanda was still kicking field goals for the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders at the age of 49. Satchel Paige was still pitching big-league baseball in his fifties. Soccer’s Sir Stanley Matthews led Stoke City into England’s First Division in his late forties. But no sport has ever had a performer as skilled and as old as hockey’s Gordie Howe, whose physique is as responsible as his expertise for the high level of his game-in, game-out performance. Howe not only keeps up with players less than half his age; in spurts he can keep ahead of them. This is all the more remarkable when Howe says quite sincerely: “The game today is much better than when I broke in. The players are bigger, and they move a lot faster.”

But do they? Or, as its many critics contend, has hockey regressed in the decade since the NHL expanded? Certainly when there were only six major-league teams there were only 120 major-league jobs.

Now there are 26 teams calling themselves major-league, providing about 550 jobs. It seems clear that Howe’s longevity, however much of a personal triumph it may be, is due in part to the dilution rather than the improvement of his sport. Facilities have improved and salaries have gone into orbit (the three playing Howes alone will earn roughly $400,000 this year). And the athletes are bigger and stronger, as Howe says. But the net result seems to be ennui, rather than excitement, for the fans, financial nightmares, rather than bonanzas, for most of the owners, and fretfulness, rather than fun, for many of the players.

North American hockey is not in good shape. The WHA has shrunk from 14 teams to eight, after its ill-starred attempt last summer to merge with the NHL. Alan Eagleson, hockey’s Mr. Everything, who wears as one of his hats the executive directorship of the NHL Players Association, says again and again that the NHL has too many teams skating over too much thin financial ice (Colorado Rockies, Atlanta Flames, Cleveland Barons, Pittsburgh Penguins, even the once-mighty Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks are all box-office disaster areas). Despite its relentless efforts, the NHL has failed to find and maintain a U.S. television network deal of the type that so enriches football, baseball and basketball. With Bobby Orr gone, Gordie Howe going and Bobby Hull racing around rinks in such unlikely places as Indianapolis and Tokyo, hockey is hardpressed to come up with the superstars so crucial to the mass popularity of any game today. Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry is unequivocal on the point: “The age of the superstar, except for Guy Lafleur, has passed.” The reason: “Everybody’s playing a system now.” In pro hockey today, a system is quite simply a defensive-oriented, grind-out-a-win-and-never-mindhow-it-looks approach that inhibits the kind of freewheeling that the Howes, Hulls, Orrs, Jean Béliveaus and Rocket Richards used to display as a matter of course.

The idea that international hockey, which in 1972,1974 and during the Canada Cup of 1976 so thrilled fans everywhere, might save the game and keep the fans happy is also fading. New York Rangers captain Phil Esposito, a true international star, grumbled about having to practise on Christmas Day in order to get ready for an exhibition game against a club team from Czechoslovakia. “The owners,” growled Espo, “are greedy.” Toronto Maple Leafs president Harold Ballard called the game his team lost to the same Czechs “utterly stupid ... a waste of time,” although he still found it in his heart to charge $ 13.50 for the best tickets.

If anything, this season there has been far too much international hockey. The Junior World Cup, in which Canada’s best young players failed to make the final, was one legitimate event, even though it was a box-office failure. But much of the rest of

this season’s international play smacked, in Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden’s words, “of plain old-fashioned barnstorming.” Czech and Soviet teams, representing far from the best talent these countries have available, played their way through the WHA, losing more often than winning, during December. Two more Czech teams, Kladno and Pardubice, plus Russia’s Spartak played 13 exhibitions against NHL clubs, winning more often than losing. The Soviet national team was preparing for a January romp through the WHA’S buildings. The Quebec Nordiques went off to Moscow to be clobbered in the

Isvestia invitational tournament. Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets flew off to Tokyo to lose three straight games to the Russians over Christmas. Amid so much uncertainty, Gordie Howe’s durability and consistency take on new importance: here, after all, is something real, something a fan can believe in, whatever the merits of the league he plays in.

Howe will be 50 March 31. The Whalers have a game that night, against Indianapolis Racers, and Colleen and Howard Baldwin are planning a mammoth celebration. Colleen will organize it, just the way she organizes everything Gordie does

off the ice. “He just hates paperwork and stuff like that,” she says. “Over the years I’ve just naturally taken on more and more of it.” Today, Colleen Howe, who recently passed her insurance agent’s exam, does most of the contract negotiating for her husband and two sons. She does their public relations groundwork, handles the mail, prepares their itineraries, gets their airplane tickets for non-Whalers travel. She is a kind of family general manager, and she enjoys the work. “I’m smart enough to know when I need a lawyer or an accountant, and smart enough to hire them when I do,” she says, anticipating a question. “I know people have criticized me, people like Ted (Lindsay, Gordie’s old Red Wing linemate who this year took over as general manager of the Detroit team). But things have worked out pretty well.”

It is easy, looking at Colleen Howe with her fluffy blond hair and attractive features and figure, to understand how a lonely farm boy plunked down in a big city could fall in love with her (they met in a Detroit bowling alley when she was 17, he 22, and were married three years later) and stay in love with her. “People say I’m henpecked,” Howe says, frowning at such effrontery. “Well, let them say it. But Colleen likes doing things, and she does them pretty well, so I say let her carry on. She’s done a great job raising the kids and keeping me going.”

Besides hockey and the family, Howe’s passions are crossword puzzles and bridge. “It used to be the hockey players played rummy or euchre or pinochle,” he laughs. “Now everyone plays bridge.” Howe’s love of crossword puzzles, he concedes, is a direct outgrowth of his self-consciousness about dropping out of school at 15. “That’s where I made my big mistake, I guess.” But as Father Athol Murray, the late head of

Saskatchewan’s Notre Dame College and a man who proved an inspiration to so many young Prairie Canadians, once told Howe, every Canadian boy could go to school but no Canadian boy could play hockey quite like Gordie Howe. Gordie recalls the year he traveled east to try out with the New York Rangers. He didn’t make it, but got a chance to play junior hockey in Galt, Ontario. Then, his eligibility as a transferred player was denied. “They told me I could stay there and practise with the team, get the ice time, but that I couldn’t play in the games. I didn’t know what to do. Whether to go back home or stay and try to learn more hockey. Well, one afternoon I left the rink and walked up the railway track and there was a factory. I went in and a Mr. Pollock—no relation to Sam of the Canadiens—gave me a job. Hockey was it.” The next year he was on his way up through the Detroit organization. After a year of seasoning in the Central League with Omaha, Gordie made the jump to the Red Wings, under the late Jack Adams. The legend was born.

Howe is an excellent anecdotalist, as well as a phenomenal athlete who might have had football, baseball or golf careers.

He is also demonstrably kind, signing autographs and joking with his public, wherever he goes; making personal appearances throughout North America, to reminisce about the old days in pro hockey

and marvel at the new ones. But that is off the ice. On it, he’s still an intimidating presence. That’s how he has survived. “I’ve been lucky with injuries,” he admits. “I’ve had three knee operations, but they’ve all taken. Other guys, well... It’s just a shame about Bobby Orr. I’d have to say he was the best player I ever saw.” (Orr says the same thing about Howe.) Only once in his long career has Howe been badly hurt, and then he almost died after missing Maple Leaf captain Teeder Kennedy with a check and going head first into the boards.

His records are too numerous and too well known to list. Quite simply, he holds all the important ones. He’s proud of them, but not preoccupied by them. Even his 1,000-goal total, which would have once been considered as unreachable as the moon used to be, may eventually fall to Bobby Hull. But his achievement in playing 30 years of major-league hockey (not counting two years when he retired from the NHL and sat around a Red Wing office with nothing to do but go to banquets for Bruce Norris) and ending up his career on the same team as two of his sons is a record that should stand as long as the game is played. Meantime, until the WHA play-offs end in May or June enemy players are advised to keep their heads up or Number 9 will drill them. Next year, they’ll be able to relax. Unless, that is, Howe gets the itch again, come September, p?