Howe enjoys the locker-room banter about his age. McKenzie, center Dave Keon and goaltender Al Smith are the only Whalers who were even born when Howe scored his first NHL goal, on Oct. 16, 1946. Howe's oldest son, Marty, is also a teammate, and another Whaler, defenseman Gordie Roberts, was named after him. When Roberts was born in Detroit in '57, Howe already had scored 353 goals for the Red Wings. Forward Jack Carlson constantly asks Howe if his suits were gifts from the '48 playoffs. "Yeah, I'm as colorful as my clothes, and they're all brown," says Howe.
Mark and Marty call their father Gordie in the locker room and on the ice. "I think if we called him Dad, we wouldn't get the puck," says Marty. "I do remember that Mark once hollered, 'Dad, Dad,' on the ice, and Gordie then hit him with a pass and he scored. But that happened just once." Mark's wife, Ginger, is expecting their first child about the time of Gordie's 50th birthday. "Maybe I'll have to stay around long enough to play with my grandchildren," says Gordie.
Harry Neale, the Whalers' coach, marvels at Howe's commitment to the game. "There's no way he thinks he's someone special," Neale says. Earlier this season Howe played four road games in five nights, then was one of only six players to show up for an 8:30 a.m. practice. "I hid his skates so he couldn't work out," Neale says. "Other men may have the physical capabilities to play at 50, but what makes Gordie so remarkable is the mental part. He knows exactly what he has to do to prepare himself to play." In training camp, for instance, that even meant running—for the first time in Howe's career—two miles each day.
As always, Howe operates on the ice with an air of nonchalance. "Gordie's remarkably economical in his movements, and unbelievably creative." Neale says. "Thirty years have gone by, and he still does something new with the puck every night." Howe acknowledges Neale's comments, then relates them to the Richard-versus-Howe comparisons that once fueled endless arguments in barrooms from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.
"People used to complain that I was nonchalant on the ice, while the Rocket was like a cobra," Howe says. "But that was my style. The Rocket even told some writers that he didn't think I tried hard all the time. Well, a couple of years ago I ran into the Rocket, and he told me, 'Gordie, I guess you really were trying all those years.'"
Predictably Howe claims that he has forgotten the details of most of his individual accomplishments. "People keep asking me about the first goal I ever scored, so I've tried to remember that," he says. "It was my first game in the NHL, and it came on a little tap-in from in close. But they tell me that Sid Abel had an assist, and I thought I was playing with two other guys."
Howe's All-Star team? "Bobby Hull. Guy Lafleur and Richard on the wings, either Milt Schmidt or Phil Esposito at center. Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr on defense and Terry Sawchuk in goal."
Of course Howe would be the right wing on anyone else's alltime All-Star team. In 25 NHL seasons he scored 786 goals and had 1,023 assists. He won six scoring championships, six MVP awards and played in 22 All-Star Games. After a two-year retirement, Howe moved to Houston and the WHA in 1973, and in his four seasons with the Aeros he scored 121 goals and had 248 assists. "Greatness is measured by quality of performance and durability," says Neale. "Howe is the greatest athlete any of us have ever seen."
What does Howe think?
"Ah, people now figure that I'm nothing special," Gordie says. "They think I'll just retire at 65 like everyone else. My father is 84, and he's still dancing back in Saskatoon. He loves dancing. I love hockey."