In this day when superstars are becoming scarcer and scarcer, Detroit has four: Howe, Lindsay, Defenseman Leonard Patrick (Red) Kelly, and Goalie Terrence Gordon (Terry) Sawchuk. Curiously enough, of this quartet, only one, Sawchuk, was lined up all the way by the Detroit organization. The Leafs could have easily snagged Lindsay, who attended St. Michael's College in Toronto and was regularly on view playing with the school team in the Maple Leaf Gardens. With Detroit, Lindsay has been rated the league's All-Star left wing six of the last seven years. The Leafs had the same opportunity to land Kelly, who also attended and played for St. Mike's. With Detroit, Kelly has developed into the best defenseman in the league. An intelligent, graceful, superbly conditioned athlete, the All-Canadian Boy if there ever was one, Kelly, in the words of Fred Huber, the Wings' erudite publicity director, "can maneuver the puck with his skates better than most players can with their sticks." In an early-season game with the Bruins this year, Kelly scored three goals, the first defenseman to achieve "the hat trick" since Happy Day did it some two decades ago. In the offseason, Kelly returns to the village of Simcoe, Ontario, where his family has owned tobacco and fruit farms for four generations, and prepares himself for another hockey campaign by working in the fields, covering about 14 acres a day as he primes an average of 1,200 "sticks" of tobacco.
And the Rangers—most ironic of all—could have had Howe. When he reported to the Rangers' try-out camp in Winnipeg, Gordon, one of nine children of a cement contractor, was a gangling boy of 15, a shade more deer-eyed than usual since it was his first trip away from his home in Floral, Saskatchewan, a granary depot on the rim of Saskatoon. He spent four days at the Rangers' camp, and no one noticed him. The next year he attended the Wings' try-out camp, and from that point on his progress was rapid: a season attached to the Gait junior team in the Ontario Hockey Association; a final seasoning season with Omaha in the U.S. Hockey League; then up with the Wings. Howe scored his first major league goal against Turk Broda. "It wasn't very fancy," he was remembering recently. "I just shoved it in. It was on his right. My left. I wrote many a letter home about that one."
In his second season Howe was moved up to form Detroit's first line with the veteran Sid Abel and Lindsay. The trio soon became the most powerful line in the game. Abel had one beef to register about his right-winger's style of play. "I don't mind this great stickhandling of yours," he told Howe one day, "but why stickhandle around the same player three times!"
If the Rangers failed to spot Howe's tremendous potential, it is somewhat, if not entirely, understandable. Even today, Howe is an extremely deceptive player. A few of his attributes are easily observed: he has a quick, fast, beautifully disguised shot; he is the best man in the business from 15 to 20 feet in front of the net; he can skate all night, both ways; for all of his old-plantation temperament, he can be rough and petulant on occasion; he plays his best hockey after he has been pushed around, and opponents are wise to treat him courteously; generally, he comports himself as if he had no idea he is one of the game's great stars. On the other hand, a large number of Howe's exceptional talents are almost invisible save to the true aficionado.
"Gordie is the Charley Gehringer of hockey," his old coach, Tommy Ivan, once remarked. "By that I mean that he has both the ability and the knack for making the difficult plays look easy, routine. Richard—you can't miss his skill, it's so dramatic. Gordie—you have to know your hockey or you won't appreciate him."
Howe, for example, has a long, gliding stride which he can accelerate so effortlessly that even when he skates clean away from the opposing forwards and then circles a defenseman, he seems to be moving slower than they are. When he appears to be noodling with the puck in the offensive zone, doing nothing, he is actually plotting whether to sweep in from the right or cut to the left, preparing to shift his stick according to his move, for, like no other player in the history of hockey, he is truly ambidextrous and is always shooting at you with a forehand shot.
Also invisible is Howe's great relaxed strength which manifests itself principally in wrists as large as the average athlete's forearm. Oddly enough, or not so oddly in Howe's case, the two most theatrical exhibitions he has ever given of his power and coordination took place off the ice. A short time ago a Detroit newspaperman took Howe, a new-to-the-game golfer, to a local course to see how he compared as a distance hitter with Dizzy Trout, the old Tiger pitcher, and Chick Harbert, the current PGA champion, both of whom are extraordinarily long off the tee. Howe outdrove them both.
The other demonstration took place a few Septembers ago when Lou Boudreau, then managing Cleveland, dropped in to watch a Red Wings practice the morning before a ball game against the Tigers. "Lou, I think I could hit big league pitching," Howe told him lazily. Boudreau invited him to come on out to the park that afternoon and they'd find out quickly enough in batting practice. With Sam Zoldak, a pretty good man, throwing them in, Howe lined the third pitch into the left field bleachers.