From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 5, 1977
IT WAS ALMOST 11 O'CLOCK ON A NOVEMBER Saturday night, and as the rest of the spiffed-up New England Whalers were rushing from their dressing room to make last call at some Hart-ford pub, Gordie Howe lazed contentedly in a whirlpool tub. "Hey, Gramps," defenseman Alan Hangsleben hollered at Howe, "where's the rubber duck we gave you?" The gray-haired Howe laughed. "I'm 50 years old," he said, "and they give me a rubber duck for my whirlpools."
For Howe, who actually won't turn 50 until March 31, those late-night whirlpools were the best part of a frustrating week as he failed in his attempts to score the 1,000th goal of his 30-season professional career. Howe had scored number 999 on Nov. 10, and now he had gone a whole two weeks and two days without a goal. Maybe old age had finally caught up with him. Maybe Gordie Howe ought to retire and give the game back to the kids, including his own.
"Ah, the goal will come," Howe said. "When I was trying to break Rocket Richard's NHL record of 544 goals back in 1963, I went 12 games before I finally broke it. And I did it with a shorthanded goal, of all things, right there in the Montreal Forum."
Howe's quest for number 1,000 was hardly helped by the hand injury he suffered during a game at Edmonton early in the week. Howe somehow mashed his left hand against the boards, and by the end of the game it was so sore, he could not even hold his stick. With Howe sidelined for the next two games, the Whalers lost 5--4 to Quebec to end a 14-game unbeaten streak and were tied 3--3 by Indianapolis.
Howe probably should not have played on the evenings of Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 when the Whalers lost to the Nordiques and the Oilers, respectively, in Hartford, but three other New England regulars, including Gordie's 22-year-old son, Mark, were out of the lineup with more serious injuries, so Gordie had little choice. On Friday he fell on the bad hand early in the game, and when he tried to snap off a wrist shot in the final minute, he flinched in pain and then watched the puck dribble off his stick. On Saturday it was more of the same, although the Whalers still led the WHA race by seven points over Winnipeg. "The hand really hurts," Howe said. "I can't do anything right."
When Howe is healthy, he can still unleash his well-disguised wrist shot—he rarely ever employs that newfangled invention known as the slap shot—with the same quickness and precision he displayed back in 1946 when he arrived in Detroit as an 18-year-old rookie from Floral, Saskatchewan. "When I was a rookie with the Red Wings in 1959, I used to tell people that Gordie was amazing for his age," says New England right wing John McKenzie. "Now here I am, 40 years old myself, and I'm saying the same thing."
Howe has moved from his old right wing position to center a line for son Mark and right wing Tom Webster. Until he injured his hand, he was the Whalers' leading scorer with five goals and 17 assists in 16 games. He has taken a regular shift, worked the power play and occasionally helped kill penalties. And New England's opponents have scored only six goals while Howe has been on the ice. Some NHL loyalists like to pass off Howe's present accomplishments with a "big deal, he's doing it in the WHA, and that's not the NHL," but Howe says, "The Whalers were 5-1-1 against NHL teams in the exhibition season, so let's forget that talk."
Remarkably Howe still ranks among hockey's best on-ice policemen. When Edmonton's Brett Callighen made the mistake of slashing Howe's injured hand during a jam-up after a whistle, Howe reached over another player, picked Callighen up and rudely deposited him on the back of the net. "I don't know if the kid meant to hit me," said Howe, "but I want him to remember that I didn't care for it." Howe also aggravated his injury when he tried to run down Edmonton defenseman Paul Shmyr after Shmyr's hard check had sent son Mark from the game with bruised ribs.
"Toughness and durability go hand in hand," Howe says. "Injuries and the traveling are what get tougher as you get older, but the game itself is great. I've learned to adjust to the times."