At that time the 50-goal mark was like 60 homers in baseball. It had been reached only once, by Maurice Richard in 1944-45, a war year. Much has been made of the fact that Richard scored his 50 goals in a 50-game season, but the fact is that over the entire 70-game schedule of 1952-53 fewer goals were scored (1,006) than in 1944-45 (1,103). In 1952-53 teams averaged a total of 4.8 goals per game, the lowest in modern hockey history. In 1944-45, when Richard set the mark, the average was 7.4 goals per game—the highest in modern hockey history. Howe's 49 actually represented a greater percentage of the total goals scored by the league than Richard's 50.
With Howe, Lindsay and goalie Terry Sawchuk in their prime, the Red Wings rattled off seven straight league championships between 1949 and 1955—a feat still unmatched in the NHL—and won four Stanley Cups. Says Howe now, "You start off winning and you take it all for granted. My philosophy is never start talking about if, and, but or the past, because 90 percent of what follows will be negative. That's what I regret most, that I can never remember the good times with Abel and Lindsay. You're young and you take it all for granted."
They say one's personality is formed by age 3. Gordie Howe, at 3, did not think of himself as something very special, just another hungry mouth to feed. His whole life he has comported himself as if he were no more than that—one more hungry mouth forced upon the world. This feeling made him one of the world's worst negotiators. "I was sort of a pushover," he says with some understatement. "I used to come into Jack Adams' office and say, 'If I'm supposed to be the best player in the league, you can pay me accordingly.' He'd say he would, and that would be the end of it. Of course he never did. Later I found out there were three guys in the Detroit organization itself that were making more money than I was. The only time I ever brought anyone in to help me, it was Lindsay. We were going to negotiate together, but Adams negotiated with us with two words: 'Get out.' "
That was the Old School, when contracts were small, one year in duration and not guaranteed; when players kept mum about injuries for fear of being replaced by some hungry kid from the minors. Howe was a child of that school, and Adams was the principal. Fiery, gruff, tightfisted—so much like Ted Lindsay that the two stopped talking—Adams once called Colleen Howe's doctor to ask if he couldn't keep her in the hospital one more day with her firstborn; the Wings had a big game that night. (The doctor declined.) But Adams was something of a father figure for Howe, who always gravitated toward strong-minded people—his wife, Lindsay, Adams—who do not mind making the off-ice decisions that Howe prefers to avoid.
"I was a pallbearer for Jack," says Howe. "We were all in the limousine on the way to the cemetery, and everyone was saying something nice, toasting him. Then finally one of the pallbearers said, 'I played for him, and he was a miserable sonofabitch. Now, he's a...dead, miserable sonofabitch.' You could hate the bastard, but he was a good man. Deep down he had your best interests at heart.
"Bill Dineen [Howe's coach in Houston and Hartford] has the greatest Jack Adams story. He was in there about a new contract, and Adams was all roses and honey, telling him he was just the type of player the Wings needed. And at the end of all this Jack says, 'So I've decided to give you a $500 raise. Congratulations.' Well, after all those nice things, what could he say? He took it. Only later Bill found out the starling salary in the league had been raised from $5,500 to $6,000. Adams paid him the minimum wage two years in a row."
Years later, Dineen promoted Howe's return to hockey. Gordie retired at the end of the 1971 season, at 43, after the Red Wings had missed the playoffs for the fourth year in the last five; they have made them only once in the eight post-Howe years. He moved into the front office, leading a life he equated with that of a cultivated mushroom: "They kept me in the dark, and every once in a while opened the door to throw manure on me." For exercise, he worked on his golf game and played oldtimers' hockey—no checking, no slap shots.
The Howe story might have ended there had it not been for the birth of the World Hockey Association, which took the sport Howe had converted into a North American game and, in turn, transformed it into chaos. In the summer of 1973, as the WHA prepared for its second season, Dineen's Houston club selected Gordie's two oldest sons, Marty and Mark, in the summer draft. Dineen called Howe to assure him the Aeros were genuinely interested in signing the two boys, not just capitalizing on the Howe name for publicity. Howe heard him out, then asked, "What would you think of having a third Howe?" Silence. "Bill? You still there? I asked what you thought."
"I heard you," Dineen finally stammered. "I wanted to ask, but I had too much respect."
Playing on the same team with his sons had been one of those high goals Howe had set for himself. So, with his wife negotiating, he agreed to a one-year playing contract followed by three years in the front office. But after working himself back into shape—his playing weight today is 206, the same as when he broke in as a rookie 34 years ago—Howe proved himself too valuable to be shunted off to the front office. The man could play. Rejuvenated by his sons—what man wouldn't be?—Howe led the Aeros to the WHA championship, scored 100 points and was the league's Most Valuable Player. Mark was named Rookie of the Year. And, most appealing of all, a whole new wave of Gordie Howe stories appeared, this time relating how Papa would come to the defense of the kids. Marty tells of the time one of the WHA thugs was on top of Mark, and Gordie asked him once, politely, to let Mark up: "When he didn't, Gordie reached down, stuck his lingers into his nostrils and pulled him off the ice. The guy's nose must have stretched half a foot."