The Howe story might have ended there had it not been for the birth of the World Hockey Association, which took the sport Howe had converted into a North American game and, in turn, transformed it into chaos. In the summer of 1973, as the WHA prepared for its second season, Dineen's Houston club selected Gordie's two oldest sons, Marty and Mark, in the amateur draft. Both had played the previous winter for the Toronto Marlboros, winners of the Memorial Cup, which goes to the junior champions of Canada, and Dineen called Howe to assure him that the Aeros were genuinely interested in signing the two boys, that they were not just capitalizing on the Howe name for publicity. Howe heard him out, then asked, "What would you think about having a third Howe?" Silence. "Bill? You still there? I asked what you thought—"
"I heard you," Dineen finally stammered. "I wanted to ask, but I had too much respect."
Playing on the same team with his sons had been one of those high goals Howe had set for himself. So, with his wife negotiating, he agreed to a one-year playing contract followed by three years in the front office. But after working himself back into shape—his playing weight today is 206, the same as when he broke in as a rookie 34 years ago—Howe proved himself too valuable to be shunted off to the front office. The man could play. Rejuvenated by his sons—what man wouldn't be? ( Rocket Richard told a friend, "Isn't that something, playing with your own sons. I dreamed of that. For me that would be a dream come true")—Howe led the Aeros to the WHA championship, scored 100 points and was the league's Most Valuable Player. Mark was named Rookie of the Year. And, most appealing of all, a whole new wave of Gordie Howe stories appeared, this time relating how Papa would come to the defense of the kids. Marty tells of the time one of the WHA thugs was on top of Mark, and Gordie asked him once, politely, to let Mark up. "When he didn't, Gordie reached down, stuck his fingers into his nostrils and pulled him up off the ice. The guy's nose must have stretched half a foot."
"If I'd failed badly," Howe says, "people would have remembered me more for trying to make a stupid comeback at 45 than for all the other things I did in hockey." Because that's how he would have remembered himself. When the land has been fruitful for 25 years, it counts not if now, with the drought, the farm must be sold. The man lives in the present. To Howe, the only negative aspect of his experience in the WHA was the destruction of his friendship with Lindsay, who—in the brusque Jack Adams style—could say nothing kinder about the return of his old linemate than that it showed what a sorry league he was playing in if a 46-year-old man could score 100 points. Howe took the remark as a personal affront, and three years later, when the Houston club was going under and the Howe family was attempting to relocate, the rift widened. By this time Lindsay was general manager of the Red Wings, a job that Howe had been in the running for, and he criticized the Howes for demanding to be paid by Houston when some of their Aero teammates were being left out in the cold. Lindsay was clearly out of line commenting on a situation he knew little about. Later, when there were reports that all three Howes would like to play in Detroit, Lindsay said he would not give Boston a first-round draft choice for the negotiating rights to Mark Howe. "Can you imagine that?" Howe says, still bitter. "Not giving up a draft choice for Mark?"
So the Howe family moved to Hartford in 1977.
Howe's final aim in hockey, for now anyway, is one that probably will never be realized. His oldest son, Marty—the one who kept Colleen in the hospital one day less than Jack Adams would have liked—was sent down to the Springfield Indians, the Whalers' top farm club, before the start of the season. He has since broken his wrist and will miss most of the season. If, and when, Marty makes it back up, Gordie will probably be in the front office for good.
"It really hurt Dad when Marty was cut," Mark says. "I thought he was going to quit. He almost did."
Gordie now says he wished the Whalers had let Marty play at least one game in the NHL before they sent him down, to fulfill that one final goal. Bill Veeck, perhaps, would have done it that way. But there has been nothing promotional or phony about the Big Guy's final year. No "Nights." No farewell tour. Howe's team has come first. Marty was his single blind spot. On Howe's return to the Forum last month, the Montreal fans applauded his every shift, the routine plays and the occasional surprise, and they looked away when he turned over the puck. Afterward, generally hard-boiled reporters complimented him on a nice game; but it was son Mark, who scored the tying goal, whom they selected as the game's first star. With three minutes left, Mark came gliding effortlessly down the left wing and rifled a shot over the goalie's right shoulder to get the Whalers a tie; he also had killed penalties and assisted on a power-play goal. None of which was lost on Coach Blackburn, the man in the not-so-enviable position should Gordie's magic suddenly be gone. "They came to see Gordie," Blackburn said. "Well, instead of seeing Gordie at 30, they saw Mark at 24. They saw the heritage. A different Howe era."
Which would suit the Old Man just fine. That night, he stood outside the Forum signing the very autograph his sister-in-law had chosen for him so many years back. His son and teammates were off to Crescent Street to celebrate the tie. You cannot imagine what it does for an expansion team to get a tie its first time into the Forum. It was cold, and Gordie's hair was wet. A young boy handed him a program, and Howe signed it over the picture of his son.
"That's not you," the boy protested.