"If I'd failed badly," Howe says, "people would have remembered me more for trying to make a stupid comeback at 45 than for all the other things I did in hockey." Because that's how he would have remembered himself. It counts not that the land has been fruitful for 25 years if now, with drought, the farm must be sold. The man lives in the present. To Howe, the only negative aspect of his experience in the WHA was the destruction of his friendship with Lindsay, who could say nothing kinder about the return of his old linemate than that it showed what a sorry league he was playing in if a 46-year-old man could score 100 points. Howe took the remark as a personal affront, and three years later, when the Houston club was going under and the Howe family was attempting to relocate, the rift widened. By this time Lindsay was general manager of the Red Wings, a job that Howe had been in the running for, and he criticized the Howes for demanding to be paid by Houston when some of their Aero teammates were, being left out in the cold. Lindsay clearly was out of line commenting on a situation he knew little about. Later, when there were reports that all three Howes would like to play in Detroit, Lindsay said he would not give Boston a first-round draft choice for the negotiating rights to Mark Howe.
So the Howe family moved to Hartford in 1977.
Howe's final aim in hockey, for now anyway, is one that probably will never be realized. His oldest son, Marty was sent to the Springfield Indians, the Whalers' top farm club, before the start of the season. He has since broken his wrist and will miss most of the season. If, and when, Marty makes it back, Gordie will probably be in the front office for good.
"It really hurt Dad when Marty was cut," Mark says. "I thought he was going to quit. He almost did."
Gordie now says he wished the Whalers had let Marty play at least one game in the NHL before they sent him down, to fulfill that one final goal. Bill Veeck, perhaps, would have done it that way. But there was nothing promotional or phony about the Big Guy's final year. No "Nights." No farewell tour. Howe's team has come first. Marty was his single blind spot. On Howe's return to the Forum last month, the Montreal fans applauded his every shift, the routine plays and occasional surprise, and they looked away when he turned over the puck. Afterward, generally hard-boiled reporters complimented him on a nice game; but it was son Mark, who scored the tying goal, whom they selected as the game's first star. "They came to see Gordie," Blackburn said. "Well, instead of seeing Gordie at 30, they saw Mark at 24. They saw the heritage. A different Howe era."
Which would suit the Old Man just fine. That night, he stood outside the Forum signing the very autograph his sister-in-law had chosen for him so many years back. His son and teammates were off to Crescent Street to celebrate the tie. You cannot imagine what it does for an expansion team to get a tie its first time in the Forum. It was cold, and Gordie's hair was wet. A young boy handed him a program, and Howe signed it over the picture of his son.
"That's not you," the boy protested.
"No, but that's my work."
Howe has always been good with children. He chides and kids remorselessly, and who can guess what goes through their minds? They worship him. He takes a giant hand now and musses up the boy's hair, a great blond shock. "Look at you with all that hair, and me with so little. That's not very fair."
The boy blushes. Ah, that he, and his hair, might endure so well.