From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, January 21, 1980
ONE PRECEPT GORDIE HOWE lives by is this: Set your goals high but not so high that you can't reach them. When you do reach them, set new ones. The trouble is, he has attained so many that he is running out of goals to set. At age 51, as a Hartford Whaler, he is in his fifth decade as a professional hockey player. "One of my goals was longevity; I guess I've pretty much got the lock on that," he says with Gordian understatement.
Five decades. The '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Old Gord has seen more decades in North America than the Volkswagen Beetle. You think he's old? In 1961, early in his third decade in the NHL, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED called Howe an "ageless one-man team." So, what is 19 years beyond ageless? Eternal?
Howe has received stupendous ovations wherever he has played this season, his 32nd. The first round of applause is for his past, for what he has given the fans over the years in hockey artistry. As their hands warm to the occasion, fans applaud Howe for what he gives them now: for enduring. Suddenly there are two games on the ice: the home team against the Whalers and Howe against Papa Time. So when, for instance, the Big Guy scored two goals in his first time back in Maple Leaf Gardens since 1971, helping Hartford upset Toronto, the crowd cheered him as one of their own and went home happy. Occasionally the two games will interfere with each other, which happened at the Montreal Forum when Howe, whose every move had been lustily hailed, high-sticked Guy Lafleur in the forehead, possibly by accident. For a moment there was shocked silence as the 16,000 spectators collectively came to the same realization: Why, the old bugger still has teeth! Then they booed.
It would be absurd to suggest that now, in 1980, Gordie Howe is the player he used to be. He will be 52 in March and is a grandfather of two. To compare a 51-year-old man with the greatest player of all time is silly. But it is not silly to compare him with the players coming into the NHL, the 20-year-olds who can skate and shoot and throw their bodies around but who cannot beat this man out of a job or keep him from scoring.
"Players learn to play when they're young, and that's the way they play all their lives," says Maurice Richard. "There are a lot of skills this generation doesn't have. They know they don't have to stickhandle—just chase after the puck. I guess that's another reason Gordie's still going."
For those who love hockey, it is an affirmation of its subtleties that a man who has lost his youth and speed and recklessness can succeed with strength and savvy and guile. Says Jean Beliveau, who as a center for the Canadiens for 18 years was smoother than Howe, though not nearly so strong, "Gordie, he still has that instinct."
Time does not diminish instinct. Nor, surprisingly, does it necessarily erode strength. Howe is still tremendously strong, which is less of a surprise to his doctors than to the kids he plays against. Bob Bailey was the Michigan physician who gave Howe the go-ahead to come out of retirement the first time, at age 45, to play in Houston with his two sons. "I think if you looked at men who do comparable work, like farmers, you'd find similar musculature," Bailey says. "It's a matter of conditioning. What I found really incredible was his pulse rate, which was around 48. That's almost the heart of a dolphin. A normal 50-year-old man might have one around 80."
The Whalers' better-than-expected early showing this season was not so much a result of Howe's play as of the influence he had on the team. "The players are Gordie Howe fans," says Whalers coach Don Blackburn, 41. "The coach is a Gordie Howe fan. So when you're 22, and you see a 51-year-old guy hacking guys and running over guys, how can you not go out and do the same thing?"
Yet for all his respect, Blackburn knows that his own job depends on the continued success of the team, and Hartford has been in a miserable slump for the last six weeks. Howe, too, has slumped as a goal scorer. Compounding his scoring problems, Howe has had difficulty adjusting to Blackburn's unique defensive strategies. "He forgets a lot," Blackburn says. "You just close your eyes and hope."