At any rate, the AHL brass seem queasy about the comeback. "I'd like to hide for a week," said commissioner David Andrews when he heard of it. But Andrews said it was a team decision and he couldn't stop anyone from playing.
Howe, hockey's greatest player until Wayne Gretzky came along, spent 25 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings (from 1946-47 through 1970-71), retired, then returned at age 45 to play with sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros of the WHA. He played seven more years before calling it quits at age 52 after the 1979-80 season. Even during that final season, in which he played 80 games for the Hartford Whalers, he was a productive performer who rarely seemed to lag behind the play.
But there is simply no way a 69-year-old can compete in pro hockey. "It's ridiculous," says Hall of Famer Maurice (Rocket) Richard, 75, who retired in 1960. "He must be crazy." There are not even any athletic precedents that compare to Howe's situation. A 72-year-old Swede, Oscar Swahn, won a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. But that came in "team double-shot running deer shooting," an event, we submit, that has nothing to do with getting checked into the boards by muscular 20-year-olds. In mainstream sports, the standard for advanced-age performance was set by George Blanda, who, as a 48-year-old placekicker and third-string quarterback for the Oakland Raiders in 1975, booted 13 field goals and 44 extra points and completed one of three passes. Boxing aficionados can point to Archie Moore, who held the light heavyweight crown until he was 48. Baseball fans might bring up pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who appeared in 16 games in 1972, at 50. Howe has two decades on all of these athletes.
Though Howe joked about being "poetry in slow motion" and needing to "sharpen my elbows" to survive, he seems serious about his comeback. We remind him, though, of words written by Colleen in their joint autobiography, and...HOWE!, published in 1995. "When he goes out on the ice, even if his back is bothering him or his knees are hurting him, you'd never know it," she wrote of her husband's appearances in charity games. "It's later he pays the price, because sometimes he can hardly stand up or sit down."
The wrestling team at The College of New Jersey (né Trenton State) has for decades been among the nation's small-college elite, and each March it goes to the mat at the NCAA Division III championships. Never, though, has a trip to the nationals given the team as much to grapple with as its visit to Ada, Ohio, did earlier this month.
On the afternoon of March 7, after the morning session at Ohio Northern, the wrestlers were traveling in three vans to a hotel to rest for the evening matches when they came upon an awful accident. The rear of a small car had been demolished by a pickup truck. The car's driver, a 16-year-old boy, was bloody and semiconscious in the front seat. Another victim, a 15-year-old boy, was trapped beneath the car, and a third boy, also 15, had been thrown from the vehicle and lay on a hillock 30 feet away. Aside from the pickup-truck driver, who was rattled but physically unharmed, the wrestlers were alone at the scene. They turned to team member Adam Angelozzi, a 20-year-old sophomore and certified emergency responder. "I froze for about 10 seconds, then everything I've learned came back," says Angelozzi.
Angelozzi decided—correctly—that the victims should not be moved. In the fiercely windy and below-freezing conditions, he and several teammates removed their coats and covered the boys. Senior Paul Eliya tore off his shirt and used it to stanch bleeding from the head of the driver, whose injuries were not as serious as those of the other two.
Though teammates had run immediately to a nearby house and called an ambulance, nearly 20 minutes passed before it arrived. By the time the ambulance left, the wrestlers, who had spent an hour at the scene, were too unnerved and too pressed for time to get any rest. Ninety minutes after leaving the accident scene, senior captain Dan O'Cone, a two-time national runner-up in the 158-pound class and the top seed in this year's tournament, was on the mat wrestling. O'Cone lost, bringing an end to his final quest for a national title. "I won't make excuses for my wrestling," says O'Cone. "In fact, the accident kind of took the pressure off. After what we'd seen, I felt privileged just to be out there wrestling."
As of Monday the driver of the car had left the hospital, another of the victims had been upgraded from critical to serious condition, and the third remained critical. "I'm proud of what our team did," says O'Cone. "Do I feel disappointed at not winning the title? Well, we might have helped save those boys' lives."