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November 23, 2012
As hockey's superman neared a number once thought unattainable, his cape looked to have plenty of wear left
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November 23, 2012

Howe The Mighty

As hockey's superman neared a number once thought unattainable, his cape looked to have plenty of wear left

From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 9, 1968

THE PUCK CAME OFF THE PADS OF St. Louis goalie Glenn Hall and onto the stick of Detroit's Gordie Howe. There was a scramble around the goalmouth, Blues and Red Wings players colliding and cursing and falling—circumstances that can unnerve the best of goal scorers, who tend to fire either wide of the net or straight into the goaltender sprawled helplessly on the ice. But not Howe. He casually centered the puck on the stretch of black friction tape encasing the blade of his stick, paused for a split second—almost seeming to savor Hall's desperate state—then drove the puck high into the near corner. The Thanksgiving-night crowd of 13,905 in Detroit's Olympia Stadium exploded into a roar, paused long enough to hear, "Detroit goal, his 11th of the season and 699th of his career, ..." and then roared again.

Hockey has a number of superstars but only one superman, and he is Gordie Howe. Last week this finest of all hockey players scored three times in two games to come within a single goal of an achievement that has virtually no parallel in North American sport. Those scores—two against Philadelphia plus the one against St. Louis—brought Howe to the brink of his 700th regular-season goal. It is entirely unlikely that any hockey player will ever again score so many; indeed, the man nearest Howe, Montreal's immortal Maurice Richard, retired while still 156 goals short of the 700 mark.

The one record that bears comparison with Howe's is Babe Ruth's 714 home runs. Ruth was 40 when he hit number 714—his third of a historic game—over the rightfield roof at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, but he trotted around the bases on wasted legs, and his teammates secretly hoped that he would quit.

Unlike Ruth at 40, Howe remains the heart of his team. Well into his 23rd NHL season, the big guy (6 feet, 205 pounds) is still killing penalties and serving on the power play, as well as taking his regular turn on a line with Frank Mahovlich and Alex Delvecchio. He came off the frozen plains of Saskatchewan as a gawky, rawboned teenager to score his first NHL goal in October 1946—on the day the Queen Elizabeth began her maiden voyage as a passenger ship; last week Howe was closing in on number 700 as the Queen Elizabeth II slipped down the ways, her predecessor outmoded, retired, a memory.

Average hockey players slow down or quit in their late 30s. Howe, despite a range of injuries, including dislocated shoulders, broken ribs and broken toes, has missed but 20 of a possible 1,391 games since 1950 and has either scored or assisted on one of every three goals the Wings have made since the spring of that year.

How long will he last? "I'll definitely play through 1970," he says. "After that, well, it will all depend on how I feel. I used to be strong every night—no problem—but now I've really got to work at it."

"He's been all hockey since he could walk," says Gordie's wife, Colleen. "He keeps wondering when his legs will start to go; other players have told him that's the first sign."

"I sleep longer these days and watch what I eat," says Howe. "If we're playing at home, Colleen just tells me what room to take, I take it, and she and the kids more or less leave me alone."

"It's a conditional thing," says Detroit general manager Sid Abel. "The man is playing as well as he did five years ago, but we just have to remind ourselves that he's 40 years old. He could go on for God knows how long—or those legs could give out on him next week."

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