Two seasons ago, in a game in which the Detroit Red Wings were trailing the Chicago Black Hawks by a goal and with only seconds remaining in the third and final period, the Wings' superlative right-winger, Gordon Howe, corralled the puck at center-ice and drove deep into Hawk territory. "Shoot! For heaven's sake, shoot!" bellowed Jack Adams, Detroit's veteran general manager.
Calmly, almost languidly, Howe held his shot, stickhandled across the ice and cut in from the other wing.
"For Pete's sake, shoot, shoot!" Adams cried despairingly, one eye on Howe, the other on the second hand of the stadium clock. Again Howe held back his shot in favor of faking a defenseman between himself and the goal, and then took a lazy half-stride in the midst of which he flicked the puck low and hard past the Chicago goalie. The buzzer, signaling the end of the game, sounded a split second after the puck had bulged into the cords at the back of the net.
"Gordie! Gordie!" Adams stammered in the dressing room after the game, thumping his palm to his forehead in the gesture of barely controlled exasperation made famous by Edgar Kennedy. "Gordie, you had two good shots you didn't take. What were you waiting for?" Howe waited a moment, then another, before answering. "Well," he finally drawled, "I guess I jus' wanted to make sure."
During his nine seasons with the Red Wings, Howe's unruffled, unhurried, Sunday-stroll-through-the-garden approach to the vigorous business of big-league hockey has periodically produced large lumps of anguish not only in the turbulent larynx of Jack Adams but also in the hearts of all good Detroit fans. Howe undoubtedly possesses the completest natural talent of any modern hockey player, and what bothers the Detroit fans is the recurring dream of the prodigies he could perform if only he could light a fire under himself each time he steps on ice—as Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens does without conscious effort, or, to name two others, "Teeder" Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Howe's teammate Ted Lindsay, "Old Forever Furious." In the meantime, they put up as best they can with Howe just as he is. For some he is, with Richard, one of the two greatest players in the game; for others, the greatest.
HOWE'S AMAZING RECORD
The members of this latter persuasion find the record book an articulate confederate. Each of the last four seasons, Howe has led the National Hockey League in scoring, in 1950-51 with 86 points (43 goals, 43 assists), in 1951-52 with 86 points (47 goals, 39 assists), in 1952-53 with a record 95 points (49 goals, 46 assists), and last season with 81 points (33 goals, 48 assists). No other player has ever led the league more than two years in a row. This season, on top of a slow start, Howe was forced by a shoulder injury to sit out eight games—incidentally the first league games he has missed in six bruising 70-game seasons. Since his return, despite the absence of Lindsay, his old line-and playmate who has been out with a bum shoulder, Howe has been moving at the pace of a goal and an assist a game, and before the season ends he may well catch the leaders, the ageless Richard and "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau, two young Canadiens who have been having immense winters.
The Red Wings annually are a well-balanced team, anything but a one-star outfit, yet it was only after Howe came into his maturity as a hockey player (at the age of 21) during the 1948-49 season that the club began its long, uninterrupted reign as the champions of the National Hockey League. For six straight years now the Wings have won the NHL pennant and have come to be regarded as the Yankees of hockey. Year after year, their only serious competition has been provided by Les Canadiens and the Leafs, with the other three teams—the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Black Hawks—habitually bogged down at the bottom of the standings, in what amounts to a league of their own to determine which one of them will limp into fourth place and so qualify for the Stanley Cup play-offs, the approximate World Series of hockey. This year, as the teams enter the final third of the schedule, the same old picture obtains with but one major modification. Les Canadiens, 30% stronger than last season, have an excellent chance of making this the year when the Detroit dynasty, like the Yankees', will at length be overthrown. Toronto has slipped a discernible notch.
The most spirited rivalry in hockey for many years was between the Leafs and Les Canadiens, a natural extension of the traditional contentiousness between the two cities (which reached something of an apex not so long ago when a Montreal newspaper announced a contest, first prize to be one week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto). In any event, this ancient hockey rivalry has tapered off, due partially to the rise of the Wings and partially to the decline of the Leafs into a team which specializes in defensive positional play and is content, after scoring a goal, to sit back and play kitty-bar-the-door hockey as it attempts to make that goal grow larger and larger as the game clambers on.