I was going in behind the Detroit net, this game, and I threw the puck out on one side and I was watching it as I came around the other side and Gordie came across and gave me—this was my first lesson—a good shot. Someone told me later, I don’t know whether it was true, that he had read that Gordie had said he just wanted to let me know he was still around.
—Boston Bruins defenceman Bobby Orr, writing in Maclean’s in 1971
Everybody has a Gordie Howe story. Some are even true. Like how his career almost ended in 1950, when the boy from Floral, Sask., was in his fourth NHL season. During a playoff game, Toronto Maple Leafs captain Teeder Kennedy thumped Howe, then a 21-year-old Detroit right-winger, into the boards. Howe’s skull was fractured; many feared he would never play hockey again. But he returned the next season—and led the league in goals. Then, there’s a story Howe himself tells: in 1979, when he was playing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers, he was put on the same line as a precocious 17-year-old—Wayne Gretzky—during a WHA all-star game against the Soviets. Howe, now 65 and living in Traverse City, Mich., remembers that one Russian forward was giving the young Gretzky physical grief. “I told Wayne to lead the guy over to me and get out of the way,” recalls Howe. Gretzky did his bit—and Howe, then 50, put his 205-lb. frame to use, decking the irritant to the ice.
Gordie Howe is still around—and still tough. But as Gretzky nears the NHL goal-scoring record, Howe seems not altogether comfortable with the hype. For one thing, Howe points out that the 801 goals he scored in the NHL (with the Red Wings from 1946 to 1971 and with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-1980) do not tell the whole story: he scored 174 more while playing in the WHA from 1973 to 1979. “My full pro record is 975,” says Howe. But he adds, with typical equanimity: “And Wayne’s ‘full’ is not his full—he had a lot of great days in Edmonton.” (Gretzky had 46 goals with the Oilers when they were part of the WHA.)
Howe declined a Los Angeles Kings invitation to accompany the team while Gretzky nears his NHL mark. That decision prompted speculation that he nurses a grudge. In 1991, Howe and other veterans sued the league— successfully, it turned out—for misappropriating $27 million from their pension fund.
Howe, who after 26 seasons with the NHL draws an annual pension of about $15,000, says he was “a bit disappointed” that Gretzky did not speak out in
support of the veterans. But that, he adds, has nothing to do with his decision not to tag along on the record watch. “I told them, time permitting,” he says. “But I’ve just been too busy.” Howe has a hectic schedule, including the North American charity tour that he began last year. And his admiration for the Great One is clearly undiminished. “I’m right behind him,” Howe says. ‘Wayne’s a great kid, and he’s been great for hockey.”
What has never been questioned is Howe’s dedication to the game. And perhaps that is his most important and enduring accomplishment. True story: 1973, Houston, and a snotty-nosed Canadian kid was practising with a
bunch of other nineand 10-year-olds—northern transplants steeped in hockey culture, southern kids just trying to figure out what the game was all about. Then, unannounced, Mr. Hockey, No. 9, who at 45 had just signed with the Houston Aeros, walked into the jerry-built arena. Soft-spoken and gracious, he proceeded to shake hands with every one of those peewees.
For at least one of those kids—yours truly—the magic of hockey has faded with the years. For Gordie Howe, it never has.
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