"I had 50 stitches in my face one year," says Gordie coolly. "That was a bad year. I only got 10 stitches last year. That was a good year."
The full roster of Howe's hockey injuries includes damaged knee cartilages, broken ribs, a broken wrist, several broken toes, a shoulder dislocation, an assortment of scalp wounds and a painful ankle wound. In a collision on the ice on March 28, 1950 (he was 21), he suffered a severe skull fracture, and he was in an operating room three hours while surgeons worked to halt a hemorrhage in his brain. Gordie dismisses them all with a casual, "Aw, it's not all that bad." And perhaps it isn't, for injuries are a part of hockey. And hockey is the major part of the phenomenon called Gordie Howe.
Jack Adams, now head of the rising Central Professional Hockey League and for 35 years the blustery monarch of the Red Wings, was the man who brought Howe to Detroit. "It's a million miles from Saskatoon," says Gordie, and he should know. Born in Floral, Saskatchewan, he was taken to Saskatoon at three months and spent his whole youth there. To know Saskatoon is, in a way, to know Gordie Howe. A town of 92,400, all of whom disappear at 10 p.m., Saskatoon was founded by a temperance society. "Is there ever any excitement here?" a native was asked by a bored and discouraged visitor. "Well," came the answer, "we've had a whole rash of killings in the past two years."
Saskatoon is actually a friendly town whose small boys dream of a kind of violence found not in dark alleys but on gleaming ice rinks. The slap of sticks and pucks is an ambient sound, and near every patch of ice parents stand shouting and encouraging and hoping and silently worrying about another stitch being added to a clean, young face. " Gordie Howe was always out there after dark," says Mrs. Bert Hodges, who managed Howe when he first joined the King George Athletic Club's midget team. "He knew what he wanted and he got it. It could be the coldest night of the year, and Gordie would be out there practicing by himself."
"I guess the coldest would be 50� below," Howe says of Saskatoon. "A lot of times it would be 25� below. It would be so cold that if you stuck your head out of the door at night, you could hear a guy walking two blocks away. You know? When I played goalie, I remember I used to skate a mile from my house to the rink, holding the pads up in front of me to cut the wind. At one rink, they had a heated shack, and a guy would ring a cowbell and the forward lines and defense for both teams would go off and sit in the shack by the potbellied stove and warm up while the alternates played."
There in Saskatoon, one sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, 69-year-old Ab Howe perched on the sofa smoking a House of Lords cigar and talked of his son. Mrs. Howe, a pale, gentle woman, sat across the room, her eyes alternating between Ab and the wall. Mr. Howe is a proud, strong man who seems to extract great pleasure from the combat of words or just unstrained conversation. Mrs. Howe is quiet, talks softly and is a sensitive woman.
"Gordie was always such a big, awkward kid," said Ab. "He was always so much bigger than the others. And always very shy. I can recall his brother Vic always yelling at him, 'Gordie, when are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet?' "
"Yes, he was always clumsy as a boy," adds Mrs. Howe.
"Hockey was the only thing in his life," Ab went on. "Any time of the year, any time of the day you'd see him with a stick in his hand. He'd walk along swatting at clumps of dirt or stones. Once one summer I came home from work, and there's Gordie firing pucks at a barrel that was up against the side of the house. Shingles were all over the ground. I had to put my foot down on that. We were only renting the house.
"I remember the first time he tried to join one of the small teams here. They sent him home because he wasn't dressed properly or something like that. I was hopping mad. Ever since I've always told him to never take any dirt from nobody because if you do, they'll keep throwing it on you. That's the way life is. He's learned it all right."