Ab remembers, "When he joined the Wings, I told the wife, 'I hope that boy never fights. He's got a blow that can kill a man." He's both-handed, you know, like me. Worked on my crew two summers. Best man I ever had. Had him on the mixer with his brother Vern. He could pick up a cement bag in either hand—90 pounds. Weren't the weight so much as you couldn't get a grip on them, the sacks were packed so tight. He'd pick them right up by the middle. His brother played out in two days, but Gordon, he liked that mixer.
"He was strong, all right. Fella came with some counterweights for a dragline in the back of his truck, and Gordon says, 'Mr. Driscoll, you want these off?' Well, it weren't a one-man job, but Driscoll, he winks at me and says, 'Sure, Gord, right over here.' Lifted 'em out of there like it was nothin'. Driscoll like to fall over. Oh, he was strong.
"That first night he played for Detroit, I put my feet up by the radio and listened to the game, and pretty soon Gordon was in a fight, all right. And he got in another. The wife was terribly upset, worrying he might kill someone. He got in fights about the first 10 games, and after a bit Mr. Adams [Jack Adams, the Detroit general manager] calls him in and asks, 'Howe, you think you've got to beat up the entire league, player by player?' "
That first game was Oct. 16, 1946. The Nuremberg trials were unveiling the full horror of World War II, and Detroit, whose automakers had long since stopped churning out jeeps and tanks and amphibious trucks, was bloated with unemployed servicemen. Their sweethearts were on a different sort of production line, as the first of a generation of postwar babies were born. Doc Blanchard led Army to a rout of Michigan, and Ted Williams, the American League's Most Valuable Player, saw his Red Sox fall in the seventh game to the Cardinals when Enos Slaughter scored from first base on a single.
Little notice was taken of a young country boy's debut in the National Hockey League, although Paul Chandler of the Detroit News recognized something of what was in store. "Gordon Howe is the squad's baby, 18 years old," Chandler wrote in his account of the game. "But he was one of Detroit's most valuable men last night. In his first major league game, he scored a goal, skated tirelessly and had perfect poise. The goal came in the second period, and he literally powered his way through the players from the blue line to the goalmouth."
"Power" would become Howe's nickname—the Whalers use it when they are not calling him "Gramps." As a young man, with those giant hands and muscular back and low-slung shoulders that would be characterized hundreds of times in the next 35 years as "sloping," Howe might have been the prototype for the laborers in Thomas Hart Benton's murals. Yet his tireless skating was his most memorable trademark—excepting the elbows.
The '40s were Howe's decade of promise. He scored only six more goals that first season. In 1947-48 he added 16, and in 1948-49, when the Red Wings finished first, he scored 12—hardly spectacular. But country boys keep promises. Beginning in 1949-50, Gordie Howe started a string in which for 20 consecutive years—two solid decades—he finished among the top five scorers of the NHL. So of course virtually every major scoring record became his. He was an institution, as stable in his field as ITT in the Fortune 500, year in, year out, from Truman to Nixon. For 20 years, he played at his peak.
Ted Lindsay was Howe's roommate in those early years, left wing on the Production Line with Sid Abel at center and Gordie at right wing. Lindsay and Howe worked the boards as no players before them, throwing the puck into the opposite corner at just the angle to make it rebound back out front for the wing breaking in. "We were inseparable," Lindsay recalls. "He was always worried he couldn't make the team. Every year he was tough on leftwingers in training camp because of it. He lived to play the game, and nobody was going to get the job away from him. Genuinely, sincerely, he felt he had to worry about his position. He would say, 'Gee, I hope I make the team.' Or, 'That guy isn't going to get my job. He'll do it over my body.' "
Howe's prairie upbringing taught him that simply because it had been a good year last year didn't mean the rain would fall and the wheat would grow this year.
"His peak, I think, was when he was about 24 in 1952-53, the year he scored 49 goals," says Abel, now a Detroit broadcaster. "He did score his 50th, too, but didn't get credit for it. He tipped in a goal in Boston on a shot Red Kelly took from the blue line, and they gave it to Kelly. Gordie didn't argue. He had a couple of games left to get his 50th."