Gordie Howe is not a philosophical man. Philosophical men are forever brooding about things, mulling over the whys and wherefores of the six mad-scramble days of Creation, concocting philosophies that attempt to make order out of chaos, so that they may cope. Gordie Howe does not brood. He has a philosophy, but he does not brood.
In that way he resembles, say, a farmer. Gordie Howe is not a farmer. He has never been a farmer, although before he was born his father did own a homestead in Saskatchewan and grew wheat—when anything grew at all. Still, there is something about Gordie that calls to mind that manner of man—horse sense, perhaps. Equilibrium. Farmers get it from the land, from weather that one year makes the crops fat and the next year brings a famine, from prices that fluctuate unpredictably, from things beyond a man's control. No sense hollering about it. Make do. Equilibrium. Who knows where Howe's comes from? But it is there. He is steady. And he has a down-to-earth way of speaking, so that the toddling grandson is "like a dog, examining every damn tree." Farmers say things like that.
One precept Howe lives by is this: Set your goals high, but not so high that you can't reach them. When you do, set new ones. The trouble is, he has attained so many that he is running out of goals to set. At age 51, as a Hartford Whaler, he is in his fifth decade as a professional hockey player. "One of my goals was longevity: I guess I've pretty much got the lock on that," he says with Gordian understatement.
Five decades. The '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Old Gord has seen more decades in North America than the Volkswagen Beetle. You think he's old? Early in his third decade in the National Hockey League, in 1961, the year Carl Yastrzemski broke into the major leagues—Yaz, the doddering ancient who this summer rapped his 400th homer and 3,000th hit—this magazine called Howe an "ageless one-man team." So, what is 19 years beyond ageless? Eternal? And why shouldn't a hockey player set standards for longevity? Cannot mastodons be preserved in ice?
George Blanda kicked field goals until he was two years shy of the half-century mark. Hoyt Wilhelm threw a baffling knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49, and who knows how old Satchel Paige really was when he worked late-innings relief in the midnight of his career? Sam Snead, in his 60's, still plays competitively against the young golf pros on the tour; why, he even shot his age in a tournament last summer. But it is not necessary, or even desirable, to compare these geriatric wonders. They endured. Endurance is a battle against time that no one can win indefinitely. We all wage it, and we will all eventually lose, which is why these older athletes are so incredibly popular.
Howe has received stupendous ovations wherever he has played in this, his 32nd season. The first round of applause is for his past, for what he has given the fans over the years in hockey artistry, for this man who is the greatest player in the game's history. As Maurice (Rocket) Richard's scoring records receded further and further in the '60s, people looked to other sports to find suitably sublime parallels for Howe. He was said to be as effortless as Joe DiMaggio, as well-balanced and deceptively fast as Jimmy Brown, as steady and soft-spoken as Lou Gehrig. A great to-do was made in 1969 when Howe scored his 715th goal, passing the home-run record of Babe Ruth. When, at 43, Howe retired for the first time, after 25 seasons, as a Detroit Red Wing, NHL president Clarence Campbell gave him due credit for the robust good health of the league, which had recently expanded to 14 teams. "When Gordie came into the NHL," Campbell said, "hockey was a Canadian game. He's converted it into a North American game."
As their hands warm to the occasion, fans applaud Howe for what he gives them now: for enduring. Suddenly there are two different games on the ice: the home team against the Whalers and Howe against Papa Time. So when, for instance, the Big Guy scored two goals his first time back in Maple Leaf Gardens since 1971, helping Hartford upset Toronto, the crowd cheered him as one of their own and went home happy. Occasionally the two games will interfere with one another, which happened at the Montreal Forum when Howe, whose every move had been lustily hailed, high-sticked Guy Lafleur in the forehead, possibly by accident. For a moment there was a shocked silence as the 16,000 spectators collectively came to the same realization: Why, the old bugger still has teeth! Then they booed.
Clearly, Howe cannot stand to be too much loved in another team's building. On the night of Nov. 27, 1965, in that same Forum, Howe scored his 600th goal, and Montrealers showed their appreciation for the unprecedented feat by standing, applauding and littering the ice for several minutes. They had barely settled back into their seats, however, when they were back on their feet booing Howe as they had never booed him before. Exactly 2:26 after the historic goal, Howe was given a five-minute major penalty for elbowing and deliberately attempting to injure J.C. Tremblay, the Canadiens' defenseman: Tremblay, in fact, suffered a broken cheekbone.
It would be absurd to suggest that now, in 1980, Gordie Howe is the player he used to be. He will be 52 in March and is the grandfather of two. To compare a 51-year-old man with the greatest player of all time is silly. But it is not silly to compare him with the players coming into the NHL, the 20-year-olds who can skate and shoot and throw their bodies around but who cannot beat this man out of a job or keep him from scoring. Howe has earned his position on the Whalers. He is not a continuing publicity stunt. The man can play.
"Players learn to play when they're young, and that's the way they play all their lives," says Richard. "There are a lot of skills this generation doesn't have. They know they, don't have to stickhandle; just chase after the puck. It may be that today's game is faster, it may be there's more skating, but teams just throw the puck in and chase it. The game's become a footrace. I guess that's another reason Gordie's still going."