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Technical ineligibility prevented Howe from playing with the junior amateur farm club to which he was assigned that season, and by the next year he was too good for that level. So he was signed to a pro contract for Omaha in the now-defunct United States League. His jump from juvenile to pro was about as startling as a Little League baseballer leaping to the majors. One season at Omaha was all Howe required in the way of pre-NHL grooming, for already the signs of greatness were showing through. Hap Day, Toronto's general manager, will vouch for that. "I took a scouting whirl around that league and spotted this youngster who could do everything," Day relates. "He kept the puck about 95% of the time, outfaking forwards, crashing through defensemen and firing shots the goalie never saw. After one period I was convinced that here was the best player outside the NHL and probably better than most in it. I checked up in a hurry only to find that Detroit had him sewed up tight. At least I've got the satisfaction of knowing I was right the first time I ever saw him."
Howe didn't hit his real scoring stride until his fourth season with Detroit and then a near tragedy in the opening game of the playoffs that spring almost ended his career. Critically injured in a collision at the boards with Toronto's Ted Kennedy, Howe underwent an early-morning emergency brain operation which doctors believe saved his life. While Howe and Adams emphatically deny it, reports persist that Howe has played ever since "with handcuffs"—under orders not to get into stick fights and other rough stuff. The infrequency of his fighting probably is due more to the respect all rivals hold for the speed and power in his huge fists than any caution on his part. There was considerable controversy at the time over Kennedy's role in the mishap, but Howe's reaction was typical of him: "I don't remember what happened but I guess I sure looked bad on the play, eh?"
Extreme modesty has characterized Howe ever since he has been accepted as one of the outstanding players of all time. The dexterity of his stick-work and the finesse and power of his shooting still amaze expert hockey men, but Howe seems more amazed because other players can't do the same. Following a game which Howe won with an exceptional play, his response when pressed for details was "Oh, I just shot it at the net and it went in." There was no change in attitude, expression or tone the next night when he failed on a far easier shot which would have been decisive. "I guess I just missed," was his laconic reply.
This nonchalant manner carries over onto the ice where Howe is a cool exception to the usual hypertensions of hockey. Like many natural athletes, he achieves the difficult with such graceful ease that it often appears as if he were only half trying. Frequent criticism has been heard that he doesn't have enough "fire in the belly," hockey lingo for competitive desire. Howe vigorously dissents, claiming, "I'm trying every minute I'm on the ice. But some nights my legs are light and other nights they're logy. I'm sure it has something to do with second wind, maybe nature's way of keeping you from burning yourself out." Whether he'll admit it or not, Howe does play his best in late stages of close games and at his worst late in games already wrapped up by a decisive score.
By a rather complicated sort of reasoning, the observation was made earlier this season that Howe already might be over the hill as a hockey player. The record book was quoted as reference, showing that he had topped the 80-total-point level four years in a row and the 40-goal mark three straight times but had failed to do either in the past two seasons. Genuinely surprised when questioned, Howe said, "I never looked at it that way but I'd sure hate to think my future was all behind me." A more complete answer came in his subsequent performance. Howe spotted Montreal's Jean Beliveau a 12-point lead in the individual scoring race about Christmas time, then started another of his typical last-half surges which carried him to the top. With only 9 games left to play he was leading the league both in goals, with 39, and total points, with 79.
Howe was only 23 when he became the youngest winner of the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring champion and kept it for the next four years. He was also voted the Hart Trophy twice in succession as the Loop's most valuable player. It was natural that he also should fill the right wing position on the official All-Star team, yet this selection touched off a bitter debate among hockey fans, and it still goes on. In achieving that honor, Howe nudged out Montreal's Maurice (The Rocket) Richard who had filled the berth for the six previous years due to his fabulous scoring feats. Here was The Rocket, widely hailed as the greatest of them all, losing top billing at his own position to a youth of 23.
The endless debate
Hockey's most stimulating hot-stove argument is still over the question: who is better, Richard or Howe? In the last eight seasons each has been on the first All-Star team four times. Perhaps Howe may some day become the leading scorer in history, but Richard still holds that ranking and is fast approaching the 500-goal target. Howe, second only to Richard in the record books, trails by some 140 but is seven years younger. So time is in his favor. Both men are understandably shy about discussing such a comparison. Howe's stock reply is: " Richard is a great player. He must be. Look at his record. I wish I had 488 goals." The Rocket takes about the same line: "Many people have tried to start a feud between us, they say I don't like Howe. It's not true. He is a great hockey player. If I had to make any comment about the guy it would be that he doesn't seem to go all out every time he's out there. If he did, there's no telling what he might do to the record book."
Adams is vocal about this comparison, although his stand may vary from day to day. He has stated from many banquet tables that "Howe is the greatest player I ever have seen or hope to see. Richard can't carry his stick." Then he also has shifted gears in picking his personal alltime all-star team by planting Howe at right wing and then shockingly insisting: " Richard is a natural left wing so I'll list him at that position." This looks like a rebuff to his own Lindsay, hockey's highest scoring left winger and a seven-time All-Star.
The relationship between the fiery Lindsay and his equally fiery boss has become somewhat delicate in recent years. Always a tempestuous player, Ted was under attack for a while because he drew so many penalties. "A man can't score from the penalty box," Adams would say, yet Lindsay still managed to rank high in the scoring list year after year. This season Lindsay went on an eyebrow-raising peace offensive, became a relative stranger in the penalty box and promptly drew Adams' wrath for "complacency."