From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 27, 1967
IT'S STRANGE TO THINK BACK ON THAT night of March 28, 1950. It's stranger than ever if, as you're thinking this in 1967, you happen to be watching the Red Wings on the ice with old indestructible Gordie Howe skating strong as ever under the weight of heaven knows how many NHL trophies for first, most, best and greatest.
Nevertheless it is a fact of hockey history that on that night in 1950, during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the sudden and violent "death" of young Gordie Howe touched off the most vicious and acrimonious feud in the chronicles of the league.
That year, thanks to the implacable offensive mounted by the Detroit Production Line of Howe, truculent Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, who is now the team's manager, the Red Wings finished No. 1 at the end of the regular season. Their opponents in the first round of the playoffs were the third-place Maple Leafs, who had won the Cup for an unprecedented three consecutive years.
For far more years than that the Red Wings had nursed a simmering hatred for the Leafs. Under coach Hap Day's guidance the Toronto club had repeatedly frustrated the Wings, beating them in 11 straight playoff games in years when they were lucky enough to make the postseason and keeping them out of it altogether for three straight seasons. An atmosphere of imminent open warfare hung over Detroit's Olympia Stadium before that first game of the 1950 playoffs.
Before the opening face-off George Gravel, the bald-pated French-Canadian referee who was something of a cutup, attempted to lighten the scene by bowing deeply from the waist in the direction of the press box. It was a useless gesture. One fight erupted early in the first period between Marty Pavelich and Fleming MacKell, and another, involving Howe and Bill Juzda, exploded soon after. Both quarrels were quelled by the officials without serious consequence, however, and by the middle of the third period, when Toronto had coasted to a 4—0 lead, anger on the Red Wings' bench was supplanted by an attitude of watchful waiting. The fans assumed that the Wings had given up on this game and would calmly skate out the final minutes, conserving their energy (and their anger) for the second game. They seemed to be doing no more than playing it safe as Toronto captain Ted (Teeder) Kennedy sidestepped his way across the Leafs' blue line on another down-ice sweep.
Kennedy was six feet from the left boards as he reached center ice. Behind him in hot pursuit was the Wings' defenseman Jack Stewart. Sweeping in from the right side was Howe, who attempted to crash Kennedy amidships. Howe was skating a trifle too slowly to hit Kennedy with full force, and it appeared the best he might do would be to graze the Leafs' player and throw him off-balance. But he missed even that opportunity and, as Kennedy stopped short and then pressed forward, Howe tumbled, face-first, into the thick wooden side boards. Seconds later he was lying unconscious on the ice, his face covered with blood. As 13,659 fans sat horror-struck, Gordie Howe, the young favorite, was carried off the ice on a stretcher and removed to Harper University Hospital.
For several hours there was a question as to whether he would survive at all. A call was put through to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, urging Gordie's mother, Katherine, to take the first plane to Detroit so she could be at her son's bedside.
As it turned out, Gordie didn't die. Two days later, when Mrs. Howe got in from Saskatchewan, she told reporters, "He still has a headache, but he's feeling fine."
But Detroit's press and public were not listening. As far as they were concerned, Gordie had been lethally assaulted and somebody would have to pay for it. Toronto naturally denied responsibility for Howe's headache, and the argument raged like a forest fire, with sportswriters, coaches and fans from both sides pouring verbal gasoline on it to make sure it didn't go out.