The Hartford Whalers—or, rather, the Springfield Whalers—were not supposed to be a very good team this year. Early in the season they beat Toronto (twice), Buffalo and Atlanta, among the old-line clubs, and tied Montreal at the Forum. The Whalers' better-than-expected early showing was not so much a result of Howe's play as of the influence he had on the team. Who wouldn't become pumped up when crowd after crowd in stadium after stadium greets a teammate with prolonged standing ovations? Who wouldn't work that much harder to make a legend's return to the NHL a success? "The players are Gordie Howe fans," says Blackburn, 41, a thoughtful man who spent 15 of his 18 pro seasons playing minor league hockey and is in his first year as coach. "The coach is a Gordie Howe fan. He's so competitive. If you try to outdo him in a crossword puzzle, you've got a problem. So when you're 22 and you see a 51-year-old guy hacking guys and running over guys, how can you not go out and do the same thing?"
Yet for all his respect, Blackburn knows that his own job depends on the continued success of the team, and the Whalers have been in a miserable slump for the past six weeks, winning only two of their last 20 games. Howe, too, has slumped as a goal scorer; he had 11 goals through Dec. 31 but has not scored since then. Compounding Howe's goal-scoring problems, he has had difficulty adjusting to Blackburn's unique defensive strategies. A right wing, Howe has spent his entire career covering his opposite wing in the defensive zone. But under Blackburn's system, his job is to cover the left defenseman at the point. "He forgets a lot," Blackburn says. "You just close your eyes and hope."
Says Mike Rogers, who centers Howe's line, "Gordie really doesn't know where he is defensively. He doesn't like standing in one place. So you let him go wherever he wants. He can't change. He might be out at the point, but then he might be hiding behind the net somewhere. Our line's not that great defensively."
Fortunately for the Whalers, the left wing on the line is a smallish, tough, brilliant player named Mark Howe, Gordie's second son. At 24, he is starting to come into his own, displaying flashes of the greatness that has been predicted for him. Already Mark is one of the finest defensive forwards in the NHL: smart, tireless, an honest backchecker who makes up for his dad's defensive hooky. The two Howes and Rogers make up Hartford's most productive line, but Blackburn is watching for signs that Gordie's legs can no longer put the hands and elbows and head in position to do the job. In the wings is a 20-year-old speedster named Ray Allison, Hartford's top draft choice, who Blackburn believes would develop rapidly, given a chance to play with Mark Howe and Rogers. "It's not an enviable position to be in—the greatest player in the history of the game and me a rookie coach," says Blackburn. "I dread what's coming."
There is a lady in Detroit who heard Gordie Howe mention in an interview that his father's 87th birthday was coming up. She did not know Gordie, except as a fan, but took it upon herself to send his father a card. "Mr. Howe, Gordie's Father, Floral, Saskatchewan" was the way she addressed it. The card arrived, naturally—Gordie once received a letter addressed: "Mr. Hockey, Detroit, Michigan." The town of Floral no longer exists, having been swallowed up by the booming Saskatoon, a sprawling transportation center in the heart of the prairie.
Ab Howe [he died in 1990] is somewhat brusque in his recollection of the boy Gordie. "He was clumsy and backward and bashful," he says. "That's why I never thought he'd amount to anything." The gentleness in Gordie's nature was a gift from his mother, Kathleen, who died at 76, a woman who bore three of her nine children without help, while Ab was working the wheat fields. But the fierce pride, the toughness, the occasional meanness that show up on the ice come from Ab, who bequeathed a prairie philosophy to his big, backward son when he was sent home from the first team he tried out for. "Never take dirt from nobody, 'cause they'll keep throwing it at you."
Old Ab Howe never took any dirt from anyone. During the Depression he worked for the city of Saskatoon and earned 40¢ an hour—$4 a day to raise nine children, and lucky to have it—and every man in his construction crew wanted his job as foreman. "I had to set a few down," he says. "I fired this Frenchman, told him to collect his pay and get out of my sight, and he swung at me. I told him, 'You goddamn pea soup, you swung at the wrong man. I'll put you in the hospital.' Knocked him down and kicked him in the pants on his way out."
Genetically, Ab, whose own father died at 94, can take a lot of credit for the way things have turned out for his clumsy son, the bashful, backward boy who flunked the third grade twice yet would sit up at night with a Sears catalogue and circle all the nice things his mother could use, promising, "When I'm famous...."; who would skate endlessly on the frozen sloughs between the wheat fields, a hockey stick in hand always, knowing the vehicle that would take him to fame, wanting nothing else and, in preparation for that day, practicing his autograph until his sister-in-law would ask: "What the heck are you doing, Gordon?"
"Which one do you like?"
"That one." She would point to one of four and he would practice it.