Before the current hockey season began, most experts predicted a third-place finish for the Detroit Red Wings. In mid-season, the Wings suddenly dropped down into a dismal fifth. Now they are back again, comfortably sure of a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs and more than likely to finish in third place as predicted. The explanation of this wavering history? A right winger named Gordie Howe (see cover) was briefly off his game and now is back in form again.
"There are four strong teams in the National Hockey League and two weak ones," says Toronto's sharp-shooting young center, Dave Keon. "The weak ones are Boston and New York. The strong ones are Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Gordie Howe." For all their loyalty to Red Wing Forwards Alex Delvecchio and Norm Ullman, to Defensemen Bill Gadsby and Wayne Hillman, to Goalie Terry Sawchuk and to rising Detroit stars like Doug Barkley, Red Wing fans feel the same way. When Howe is on the ice, Detroit's Olympia Stadium hums like an overloaded electric cable. Sparks fly among the audience, and—if statistics mean anything—power is generated in the team. Of the 114 goals scored by the Red Wings during the first part of the current season, only 15 were scored by Howe himself, but 54% were scored while Howe was on the ice. Since forwards spend only about 30% of any game on the ice, the implication is clear: Howe makes the Red Wings go.
Few men have stood out in any game as Howe has in hockey. After 18 years and 1,301 games in the NHL, the mere statistical record is imposing enough: eight times on the All-Star team, six times on the second All-Stars, six times the league's Most Valuable Player, six times the league's leading scorer, holder of the record for most goals scored in regular-season play (563), for total points including playoffs (1,398) and so on and so on.
But the quality that has led all but the most sentimental partisans of the great Maurice (The Rocket) Richard to describe Howe without reservation as "the finest hockey player of all time" goes far beyond statistics. Its explanation may lie in the fact that Gordie Howe is fully alive only when he is playing hockey, for Howe off the ice and Howe on it are two different men.
Off the ice, Gordie Howe is a big, lumbering, bashful six-footer who mumbles inarticulately and wears an expression of almost permanent apology. The constant target of every intoxicated bore and loquacious "expert" on the fringe of the game, he answers questions in squirming monosyllables and avoids all contention. Only when pressed will he make anything resembling conversation, and then his efforts at lightness and humor are as clumsy as the movements of a child on his first double-runner skates. In what was for him a moment of rare good spirits after a victory in Detroit a few weeks ago, Gordie told a story about his father. "Some guys," he said, "came up to him and asked him if he was Gordie Howe's father. He said, 'Yeah,' and they offered him a drink. And that was all for him. They must have put something in his drink and then tried to roll him. That'll teach him. The next time anybody asks him if he's Gordie Howe's father he'll say, 'No, never heard of the bum.' "
Although he is now, along with Bill Gadsby, an assistant coach of the Red Wings, Gordie is rarely seen in the company of the club brass. He much prefers the society of his fellow players. When he finally broke The Rocket's longstanding record of 544 regular-season goals in November of last year to become the league's all-time top shooter, his first reaction was: "Thank God that's over. It was getting so the boys wouldn't even have a beer with me." He should have said two beers, because that's all he ever drinks.
So much for the Gordie Howe who" wants to be just one of the boys. Once the whistle has blown, another Howe appears, who differs from the first as a mountain from a plain. This Howe has been variously described in a poll of coaches as the smartest player, the finest passer, the best playmaker, the slickest puck carrier and the ablest stick handler in hockey. "He is," according to a longtime opponent, "everything you would expect the ideal athlete to be. He is soft-spoken, deprecating and thoughtful. He is also the most vicious, cruel and mean man I've ever met in a hockey game."
"The trouble is he knows how to shade the rules," says one player on the Chicago Black Hawks. "You do something to him, he won't let on you got to him. But when you come out of the next scramble, you've got four or five stitches you don't know how you got."
A few seasons back the Rangers' Lou Fontinato, then thought of as one of the league's genuine tough guys, slammed Howe into the boards rather too forcefully. Howe objected. Fontinato squared off, and Howe dropped him with a right, smashing his nose. When LIFE later published a picture of the smashed nose, New York's Coach Phil Watson claimed dejectedly that it had shattered the spirit of his club for the entire season. Despite an even temperament and a real distaste for combat, there is a part of Howe the hockey player that is calculatingly and primitively savage. He is a punishing artist with a hockey stick, slashing, spearing, tripping and high-sticking his way to a comparative degree of solitude on the ice. During a recent nationwide TV essay on the rough, tough Black Hawks, Chicago Coach Billy Reay was heard to moan between the periods of a game with Detroit: "What's the matter with you guys? Are you afraid of that guy Howe? Why doesn't someone bust him?" Nobody did.
At 35, Howe's hair is graying, but his body is still sleek and hard. His shoulders dip down like the sides of a mountain, and his arms dangle loosely like the long limbs of a dead tree. He admits to losing a step in his long, rhythmic, economical skating stride, but his skating remains, along with his brilliant anticipation, a striking and captivating feature of the game. Howe's face is smooth and lean and sharply defined, and one has to look closely to detect the thin, jagged lines of scar tissue that crawl over his eyes and lips and nose. In his career he has received more than 300 stitches in his face; he also has suffered the disappearance of an even dozen teeth.