Articles

IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT GORDIE?

Does Howe rate as the greatest player alive? Is he plain lucky to skate with a great line? While the experts argue the shy superman from Saskatoon calmly goes on netting the puck with both hands and watching his salary soar

BARNEY MILFORD January 1 1953
Articles

IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT GORDIE?

Does Howe rate as the greatest player alive? Is he plain lucky to skate with a great line? While the experts argue the shy superman from Saskatoon calmly goes on netting the puck with both hands and watching his salary soar

BARNEY MILFORD January 1 1953

IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT GORDIE?

Does Howe rate as the greatest player alive? Is he plain lucky to skate with a great line? While the experts argue the shy superman from Saskatoon calmly goes on netting the puck with both hands and watching his salary soar

BARNEY MILFORD

CLARENCE (HAP) DAY, the assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, flew to Detroit one day last October to discover if the Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens had picked up any new hockey tricks since he’d viewed them last season. The Wings were booked to play Day’s Leafs four nights later in Toronto and the Habitants were on the agenda the following week so Day put on his dark glasses and false beard, took a chair behind the Detroit bench and proceeded to scout two of Toronto’s more detested rivals.

As generally happens when Detroit plays Montreal it was a spirited wrangle between two of the National Hockey League’s mostcolorful teams. For two periods Day had virtually nothing to place under his retreating hairline for future reference. Both sides looked brisk and polished and vigorous and accomplished and this was nothing new to the Leafs. But in the third period, with Detroit nursing a 2-1 lead, the game blew wide open and here is how it happened:

Gordie Howe, the Saskatoon youngster who is Detroit’s AllStar rightwinger, broke across the blueline with the puck near the boards and was immediately hounded by Doug Harvey, Montreal’s All-Star defenseman, who was endeavoring to force him into the corner. He seemed to have succeeded, too, for he had pushed Howe to such an angle that the rightwinger’s shot was blocked easily by the Montreal goalkeeper, Jerry McNeil, and it bounced out four or five feet in front of the goal.

Harvey still had his right shoulder dug into Howe’s left side as they circled toward the back of the net, with Howe’s stick rattling against the backboards as they scooted along. He was in no position to reach the loose puck until suddenly he straightened, lofted his stick high in the air with both hands, slid the butt-end of it into his right hand as he brought his arms across Harvey’s hunched shoulders and then, shooting left-handed, reached out for the loose puck and drove it across McNeil’s chest into the net. The Canadiens were so shaken by this legerdemain, and the Red Wings so ecstatically buoyed (hockey players are an emotional band), that Detroit had no difficulty adding three more goals for a 6-1 triumph.

Hap Day, in his report to Leaf coach Joe Primeau the following morning, described the play with a noticeable quaver in his voice and concluded that it was “the most brilliant goal I ever saw.” Things like this make many people believe that Howe, who will not be twenty-five until next March 31, is the best hockey player alive today. Almost everyone in the NHL who makes his living thinking has a favorite Howe play to describe, usually so poignant that it requires gestures, and the stories seldom overlap. The common denominator is Howe’s versatility.

Invariably, hockey men begin their orations by noting that he can do everything well. Then, their heads shaking unbelievingly and their audience as silent as the Montreal Forum when the enemy scores a goal, they launch into a detailed account of this or that fragment of how Howe won them. Of this young man they point out that he can skate, he can fight, he can backcheçk, he can stickhandle, he detests defeat and therefore has great spirit, he can kill off penalties, he can make plays, he can think, he can shift, he is durable and, most important of all, he can put the puck in the net. He can do it right-handed or left-handed, an exceedingly rare accomplishment.

There is no known way that a rival coach can stop Howe consistently. Sid Abel, his centre on the great Detroit line that had Ted Lindsay at left wing, was asked soon after he became coach of the Chicago Black Hawks this season if his experience in playing beside Howe had provided him with a theory on how to stop him.

Does Gordie Damp the Rocket?

“Naw,” replied Abel gloomily. “What I’d like to do is put a saddle on him and let somebody ride around on his back.”

Howe’s leading booster, not unnaturally, is Jack Adams, general manager of the Red Wings, who does not spar around with reservations. “He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen in hockey,” Adams remarked on the eve of the league’s annual All-Star game in Detroit last fall.

This was shocking news to supporters of Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the idolized Montreal rightwinger who recently established an all-time scoring record when he wiped Neis Stewart’s three hundred and twenty-four goals from the record book. For two years there had been considerable controversy over the relative merito of Howe and Richard. Dick Irvin, coach of the Canadiens, apparently held the trump card for any such discussions with this observation: “When Howe scores as many goals as Richard has then I’ll consider it time to start comparing them.” At the start of the current season

Continued on page 41

OFFENSE

HOWE’S VERSATILITY MAKES HIM HARD TO HANDLE

DEFENSE

Is It True What They Say About Gordie?

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 15

Howe liad scored one hundred and sixty goals in league play, compared with Richard’s three hundred and nineteen. However, as we shall see, the remark by Irvin was not as conclusive as it first appeared. For one thing, over ihe last three seasons, Howe not only scored as many goals as Richard but actually scored thirteen more—one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and twelve.

For the long-range view, Howe is seven years younger than Richard, who ös now thirty-one, and therefore can conceivably last seven years longer. Howe, over the past three seasons, averaged 41.6 goals, at which pace he could dose the gap separating him from Richard in four seasons. And since his NHL life expectancy is seven years longer than Richard’s and since he is roughly one hundred and sixty goals behind him, he needs to average only twenty-three goals a season, or approximately half of his present output, to overtake the Rocket.

Howe, in his first six seasons, scored twenty-seven fewer goals than Richard counted in his first six years, three of which were war years when competition was sub-par. Over the last five full seasons, or since Howe settled into his NHL stride, Richard has outscored him by only seven goals.

The pro-Richard faction got its first great shock two years ago when Lloyd Percival, director of Canada’s Sports College, released a detailed analysis of the two players after watching each over a seventeen-game period and recording various statistics revealed by stop-watches, graphs and charts. In noting seventeen points about their play Percival’s researchers concluded that Howe was superior in sixteen of them, including such items as “carries puck out of defensive zone more often,” “completes more passes,” “hands out more body checks,” “backchecks more often and travels faster when so t^oing” and “shows greater variety in chafing plays.” Research showed get jrad superior in only “acceleration thin1 a complete stop.” Percival confided that the tests “point out Howe’s feat versatility and Richard’s lack of peam play without regard to their -individual scoring.”

No plaques were erected in Montreal to perpetuate Percival’s name. “It is obvious to me that this is an attempt to rob Richard of the right he deserves as the greatest rightwinger in hockey today,” exploded Dick Irvin. Hockey writers around the NHL failed to share Irvin’s appraisal. They named Howe to the All-Star team that season and saluted him again last season during some of which Richard was sidelined by a groin injury. In each case, Richard was named to the second team under a system of selection whereby three writers from each NHL city name first and second All-Star teams.

Howe earned nine thousand dollars

in bonus prizes last season. He got a thousand from the league and a thousand from the Red Wings for winning an All-Star berth, the same for winning the scoring championship (for the second successive season) and the same for winning the Hart Trophy, which goes annually to the player voted by hockey writers as the most valuable to his team. And, like each of the Red Wing players, he got three thousand dollars as his share of the play-off pool as Detroit won the Stanley Cup. On top of a reported twelve-thousanddollar salary, which this season is believed to have been upped to fifteen thousand, Howe thus observed his twenty-fourth birthday last spring with earnings of twenty-one thousand dollars.

The money could scarcely have come drifting down on a more modest young man. When Howe established an alltime NHL scoring record of eighty-six points during the 1950-51 season he was asked to explain his sudden arrival among hockey greats. “It. was just luck,” he related. “The big reason must be because I’m on a great team and have Abel and Lindsay to play with on a line.” When Wes McKnight, Toronto radioman, asked him for his reaction to the Percival analysis which showed him superior to Rocket Richard in sixteen out of seventeen departments, Howe told a nationwide audience: “1 feel very honored to be mentioned in the same breath with as great a hockey player as Richard.” Linked romantically with Barbara Ann Scott a year ago by an overzealous publicity man, Howe remarked: “It was just a big joke. I was pretty surprised to see my picture there in the paper beside hers.”

Rough and tough on the ice, Howe, a six-foot, hundred-and-ninety-fourpounder, is quiet-spoken, retiring and shy between games. He very rarely swears, in or out of uniform, and is a stickler for physical condition.

Early this season, with Detroit in first place in the wake of 7-0 and 6-1 victories over Chicago and Montreal, Howe was riding along in third place in the scoring with four goals and three assists. The day before the team entrained for Toronto for its next game the Red Wing coach, Tommy Ivan, dropped into the dressing room in the Olympia a few hours after practice. He found Howe, garbed in sweat clothes with a heavy towel piled around his neck, working alone on the stationary bicycle.

“What’s your trouble?” he asked Howe in surprise.

“Aw, I’m not going so good,” perspiring Howe retorted. “I should be putting more in the net.”

“Not pedaling to Toronto, are you?” grinned Ivan, pleased that his big star took his business so seriously.

“If I am,” smiled Howe, “I’m hardly out of Detroit yet.”

Bachelor Howe, who once remarked that girls “make me feel nervous,” spends his summers in Saskatoon in the two-story house he bought for his parents after the 1950-51 season. He is an outstanding baseball player and was batting .374 in the Saskatchewan Senior League late last summer when the

Detroit management, fearing an injury, requested that he stop playing ball.

Gordie is the fourth youngest in a amily of nine in which there are five girls. As a youngster he endeavored to overcome a lack of minerals in his infancy, which had left him with a weak spine, by working for a building construction company, mixing cement, nd by hanging from the archway of >ors and swinging his hips endlessly.

5 a result, he has a thick upper body, th big arms and strong wrists.

One night not long ago, in fact, mg Jim Norris, head of the lntorional Boxing Club, whose father ed the Red Wings, dropped into the gs’ dressing room with Jake Mintz, manager of fighters. When Mintz *aw Howe emerge from the shower oom, he nudged Norris.

“Geez,” he said. “Who’s that big gg? Whatta built! He’d make a ghter, Jim.”

Young Norris grinned. “Forget him,

” he said. “If we ever took him the Old Man would have a fit.” we has a thick neck (he wears a m-and-a-half collar) but it looks my because it is long and because shoulders have a long gradual slope eh actually gives his upper body a In shape. He dresses nattily, bis isers sharply draped and the coats on his hips, and he drives a .v)wder-blue hard-top convertible Oldsbile. He wears old pants and crewnecked sweaters at home in the offseason but, like all the Red Wings, n ever goes to the dining room of a hotel \ vithout a jacket and necktie (it’s a dub rule that also applies to railway lining cars).

He’s a patient, easy-going lobbyîr, an asset for a hockey player who spend many idle hours waiting id hotels during road trips. Most are overnight and the players r lobby-sit or shop or take in a ie until three-thirty when the Red ngs, at least, go to the hotel dining •m for a steak, baked potato, one getable and ice cream. When the me ends they hastily shower and lange and grab taxis for the railway ation and the overnight ride back me or, occasionally, to another road

.owe, who doesn’t smoke and has y an occasional relaxing beer, tries get at least ten hours’ sleep every dght.

Howe gave no thought to professional .ockey as a boy, playing the game as a dget and juvenile mostly because 'ery other youngster in Saskatoon th the normal number of legs played But when Gordie was fourteen, ;uss McQuarrie, a great promoter of inor leagues in the city, sent him to Winnipeg to attend a New York dangers’ tryout camp. It was the first .line Howe had been so far from home iut he has little recollection of his week in Winnipeg. “The only thing I knew,” he remarked not long ago, “was the route from the hotel to the Amphiheatre rink.” He was on the ice only our or five times and because he was an inderdeveloped six-footer he got scant ittention from Lester Patrick, then boss of the Rangers. “Lester kept asking me my age,” Howe recalled recently. “Nothing else ever happened.”

He went back to Saskatoon where the late Fred Pinkney, then a Detroit scout, picked him up for the Red Wings. He’d filled out a little by the following fall and Jack Adams, the Detroit general manager, liked him and urged him to work on his physique and to "return to Windsor the following year. Howe did and Adams, desirous of having him develop under Detroit supervision, sent him to the Galt juniors, then sponsored by Detroit

and coached by AJ Murray, former New York Americans defenseman. But, because he was being transferred from one branch of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to another, Howe was compelled to stay out of hockey for one year. Nevertheless, Adams kept him at Galt where he played exhibition games and practiced daily under Murray. He quit school (“I was embarrassed a little; all the kids my age were about half my size”) and got a job in Galt.

Howe did so well in fall training when he was seventeen that Adams decided to make him a professional and sent him to Omaha in the United States Hockey League where Tommy Ivan was the coach. Howe, who therefore never played junior hockey, scored twenty-two goals and had twenty-two assists but he did more than that to indicate to the Detroit brass that he was a real find. Playing in St. Louis one night he became involved in an

exchange with defenseman Myles Lane, a former NHLer and a very rugged performer. The exchange developed into a fight and Lane knocked Howe down with a right-hand wallop. Howe scrambled to his feet and Lane knocked him down again. Once more Howe got up and this time he tore past Lane’s punches and gave the big defenseman a lacing.

That night, Tommy Ivan phoned Jack Adams in Detroit. “Jack, we’ve got something here,” he said. “This big skinny kid, Howe, has the guts of a burglar.”

Thus, when Howe was eighteen, he was ripe for the NHL. To that point he’d been fairly free of injuries, although he had a rupture operation after his season in Omaha. But, early in bis first year with Detroit, he was checking Bryan Hextall in a game in New York and he felt his left knee twinge. The cartilage had popped and it came out several times during the

season. Nevertheless, playing with Adam Brown and Billy Taylor, he got seven goals and fifteen assists and played fifty-eight games. The season was less auspicious than his debut but it was satisfactory. For in his first NHL game, in Toronto on Oct. 16, 1946, he beat Walter (Turk) Broda with the game’s first goal and later checked Syl Apps with so heavy a bodycheck that Apps was forced to retire with a knee injury.

Howe had the cartilage removed from his left knee in a post-season operation and in his second season, by now operating beside Lindsay and Abel, he doubled his points output with sixteen goals and twenty-eight assists. He seemed headed for big things the following season but early in December he was belted by defenseman Pat Egan and tore the cartilage in his right knee when he bounced into the boards. Two weeks later it was apparent the knee couldn’t be mended and the cartilage was removed before Christmas. He worked hard to strengthen his knee and made a remarkable recovery to return to the lineup in just over a month. A shoulder injury later sidelined him for four games and altogether he missed thirty games of the seventygame schedule. He came back to shine in the play-offs, leading all pointgetters with eight goals and three assists and that outburst was indicative of his future. In the play-offs the next season, 1950, Howe received Iris gravest injury of all.

In an incredibly vicious series with Toronto, Howe raced across the ice to check Ted Kennedy near the end of the first game. Kennedy, cruising near the boards, pulled up short as Howe slammed toward him and Howe crashed headlong into the boards. He crumpled to the ice, blood streaming from his nose and eye. A brain specialist ordered an immediate operation to remove fluid causing pressure on the brain. Also, he had a fractured cheekbone and nose. After a forty-fiveminute operation Howe’s condition still was serious twenty-four hours later and headlines in the three Detroit newspapers shouted that his life was in danger.

This added animosity to the riotomd hockey series and seemed to add ^ou Detroit’s determination to whip Jn:jty Leafs, which they did in seven ganfhty Then, with the fast-recovering HoviD7 able to leave the hospital ten day;7S later, they won the Stanley Cup by'7 beating the New York Rangers in the^ final. Howe, his head heavily bandaged joined his team on the ice after the game when the fans began to chant, “We want Howe!”

He recalled the occasion recently. “That was the biggest thrill I’ve ever experienced. The folks sure made me feel that I wasn’t forgotten.”

Of Kennedy, whom the Detroit papers had flayed unmercifully after the accident, this paragon of modesty observed: “Ted isn’t the kind of player who would deliberately injure an opponent.”

Howe hit his top stride after that, setting a new league scoring record the following season. A small hole had been drilled over his right ear in the operation and the management insisted he wear a helmet to protect his head. Howe wore it for a time, then discarded it. “Makes me sweat,” he explained.

Howe, who invariably credits others for his success, is loudly applauded by those who play with him. “He added years to my life,” Sid Abel, the Chicago coach, once remarked. “If you can just stay young enough to follow that guy you can pick up an awful lot of garbage in front of the net.” ★