Hockey, of course, was never meant to be a footrace, because the fastest skaters in the world cannot outskate a pass, and because, for all its advantages, dumping a puck into the corner and chasing it proves little if, once regaining it, a man does not have the stickhandling skills to work it toward—and eventually into—the goal. Which is the point, after all. The art of stickhandling hasn't died; there are just fewer stickhandlers spread among more teams. And the great stickhandlers are still the great scorers: Lafleur, L.A.'s Marcel Dionne, young Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers. Howe may be the slowest forward in the league, but at last count he had 11 goals, which was sixth best on the Whalers. There is so much more to the game than foot speed or shot speed. There are men who point to the success of a 51-year-old grandfather as proof positive of the sorry state of hockey today, but for those who love the sport, it is an affirmation of the game's subtleties that a man who has lost his youth and speed and recklessness can still succeed with strength and savvy and guile.
"Gordie has no set play for a given situation," says Don Blackburn, the Whalers' coach. "I never know what he'll do with the puck because there is no limit to his creativity." Says Jean Beliveau, who played center for the Montreal Canadiens for 18 years and was even smoother than Howe, though not nearly so strong: "Gordie, he still has that instinct."
Time does not diminish instinct. Nor, surprisingly, does it necessarily erode strength. Howe is still tremendously strong, which is less of a surprise to his doctors than to the kids he plays against. Dr. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who gave Howe the go-ahead to come out of retirement the first time, at age 45, to play in Houston with his two sons. "I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you'd find similar musculature," Bailey says. "It's a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That's almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80."
When Howe had his physical before this season, the cardiologist said, "This man could run up Mount Everest." Howe, in fact, loathes running as far as up the driveway, although for the first time in his career he jogged some last summer. But his pulse rate and blood pressure remain those of a young man. "The stamina is there, the strength is there, it's the speed that goes," says Vincent Turco, the Whalers' team doctor. "But age is kinder to hockey players, because skating is a little different than running."
It has been suggested that one of the reasons age has been kinder to Howe, specifically, is that none of the younger hockey players wants to be labeled as the guy who knocked the Old Man out of the game. Well, that simply isn't true. If players are staying away from Howe, they are doing so out of concern for their own skins, not his. Howe has spent more than 30 years playing what he calls "religious hockey"—it's better to give than to receive—and the woodwork crawls with horror stories of those who have crossed him. Tough men who have crossed him. Lou Fontinato, the Rangers' policeman, challenged Howe and took three uppercuts to the face—thwap! thwap! thwap! People who were there swear you could hear the sound of Fontinato's nose breaking all over Madison Square Garden. Beliveau tells of seeing Howe release his stick following a wrist shot so that it slashed across Gilles Tremblay's forehead. Gristly John Ferguson, now general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, took over as Howe's shadow when Tremblay retired from the Canadiens. "He never scored on me," Ferguson says. "That's my claim to fame. Of course, he got a few when I was in the penalty box. And one night he stuck the blade of his stick into my mouth and hooked my tongue for nine stitches."
Colleen Howe, Gordie's wife and business partner, says, "Gordie doesn't elbow someone in the jaw out of anger; he does it to teach them a lesson if they've embarrassed him on the ice. He's a tremendously prideful person."
It's a lesson that this generation of NHL players has largely accepted on faith. They may not be able to stickhandle, but they're no dummies. "Howe's still pretty good with his elbows," says Chicago Blackhawk forward Cliff Koroll. "But he doesn't really have to use them much, because nobody comes near him."
It is obvious, too, that Howe has lost none of his subtlety. When he throws an elbow, he does not stop and fling one in anger but incorporates it into his skating stride. So it is a rhythmic motion—left foot forward, right elbow back—barely noticeable. Except that the young pursuer is suddenly a stride behind and, now that you think about it, the natural rhythm of a skater does not call for elbows at ear level.
In a game against Winnipeg. Howe twice elbowed 6'3", 210-pound defenseman Scott Campbell in the third period. The second time, the 22-year-old Campbell went after him, challenging Howe, until the linesmen stepped between them. After the game, an amused Howe shoved a powerful forearm into someone's collarbone, showing where he'd given Campbell his shots. "Those kind don't hurt too much," he said. "They don't count if they're not in the face."
But as Beliveau suggests, "Let's remember Gordie Howe as a hockey player. Deep down he was—and is—a hockey player."