The aura of health is obvious even to those in the stands, but what they go to see is Howe the goal scorer, flicking his huge wrists with a silken strength, a mongoose quickness. Chicago's Bobby Hull is famous for a slap shot that has been timed at 118.3 mph. Howe's wrist shot—he doesn't waste time winding up—sizzles in at 114.2 mph. It is the game's most accurate shot, and Howe, the only truly ambidextrous NHL player, can score with equal facility from either side of his body. He uses a 21-ounce stick of Canadian ash with only a slight bend in the blade and an extremely stiff handle. "Give Gordie a stick with an ordinary handle," says Trainer Lefty Wilson, "and he'll break it like a toothpick. He is so strong that when he shoots, that handle bends like a banana."
As he cruised Philadelphia's Spectrum and Detroit's Olympia so effortlessly last week, barely lifting his skates from the ice, conserving energy for the big moments, Howe was rarely bumped or prodded. He has won that freedom from harassment by dealing out retribution with stick and elbows—discreetly, painfully—to anyone who fouls him. Howe averages only about 65 minutes in penalties a year, which is far below the norm for hockey's "bad men."
"The only way to stop Howe is to crowd him, stop him before he gets started," says Detroit Defenseman Kent Douglas, "but nobody wants to crowd Gordie. Nobody even wants to get near him."
"My first game in the NHL was against the Red Wings," recalls Oakland's Bryan Watson. "I was with the Canadiens then, and they threw me out to kill a penalty. I went into the corner with Howe, knocked him down from behind and skated away with the puck. I hadn't gone very far before I heard heavy strides coming up behind me, and then I felt a stick slipping under my arm. Then there's the blade—not an inch from my nose. It's Howe, and he says, 'Check out, junior.' I got so scared I fell down."
Howe's surgical touch with the stick would not make him the menace he is without the physique behind it. Howe has the long, thick neck and sloping shoulders that have distinguished a number of powerful athletes, among them Joe Louis, Paul Hornung and Stan Musial. Howe's neck measures 17 inches, and his arms are so long the shoulders of his jackets must be padded to give definition to his upper body.
Strength, shot, savvy—all these are combined in Howe with a deep, smoldering drive never to be beaten. "Gordie has simply got to be first," says Doug Roberts. "With him there's no other approach. Even in practice you take the puck away from Gordie Howe and you'd better get ready for some sore wrists, because he's going to come after you and get it back."
Being the best has not made Howe rich—or perhaps it should be said that Howe has not extracted from hockey all the money he might have. For years he was content to accept salaries in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. But in this new age of stars driving hard bargains—and amid rumors of an astronomical contract signed by Boston's kid defenseman, Bobby Orr—Howe has finally gotten a little tough with the Detroit front office. A few days before the season began he had a long talk with Bruce Norris, the Red Wings' owner, and emerged with a two-year contract and a big raise that increased his salary to approximately $75,000 a year. Along with the raise he was offered a vice-presidency in a Norris-owned insurance firm.
Howe drives a maroon 1968 Buick and lives with Colleen and their four children in a $50,000 split-level home—modest for a superstar—in suburban Birmingham. He operates an ice rink nearby and earns additional income from endorsements.
"I'm really just a lucky old farm boy," Howe says. "I remember when I came up I cut out all the newspaper pictures showing me in a Red Wing uniform just to prove to everyone that I played in the NHL. At first all I ever wanted to do was stick around for a while, but as time went by I decided I'd play 20 years if it killed me. I'll play as long as I can keep up with the scoring leaders."
Hockey without Howe will be like the Atlantic without Queen Elizabeths, but the time will come for him to quit, and when it does Howe will not try to prolong his career into a Ruthian twilight.