The Great Gordie Skates On
Sport of the seventies officially ended with the Super Bowl last night. Rod Laver no longer slams serves. The Juice no longer darts through defenses and Joe Namath no longer flings footballs. Pele is in an office. Say Hey is in the Hall. But Gordie skates on.
Gordie Howe, the 51-year-old wunderkind of the Hartford Whalers, is unique. At the beginning of the 1970s, if you were a hocky fan in Toronto, you tried to see Detroit play the Maple Leafs. Not because the Red Wings had a stellar team--in fact, they were terrible--but because they had Gordie. Gordie equals greatness.
The debate rages over the greatest hockey player of all time. Howie Morenz, the Stratford Streak, has the vote of the turn-of-the-century crowd; Maurice "The Rocket" Richard is the next generation's favorite. There are the Bobbies: Hull, the complete goal scorer, and Orr, with his intangible, but nonetheless real, brilliance. And Gordie.
Howe has served his game. He has scored goals, displayed elan and brute strength on the ice, and maintained as low and as dignified a profile as possible in these days of "big-time" sport and media saturation. Perhaps because he used to ride trains to games, or because he didn't grow up with television--but most likely, because he has seen it all.
For the record, Gordie grew up on the wheatfields of Saskatchewan. He scored his first professional goal in 1946. He has played on the same squad as his two sons, Mark and Marty. His agent is his wife, Colleen. He has played against Orr, Hull, the Espositos, the Richards, and the Russians. He possessed the wickedest pair of elbows in sports, football giants notwithstanding.
Those elbows have taught a lesson or two. Admittedly, a fine line exists between legitimate use and violent abuse of the physical in professional hockey. Howe, however, most nearly approaches hockey's elusive ideal of toughness without violence. His retaliatory elbows, legendary for their subtlety, are vicious but not malicious.
Much has been said this week about Jack Youngblood's willingness to play on a broken ankle in the Super Bowl and Jack Tatum's willingness to injure wide receivers. Yet, until Tatum's book came out of the closet, violence in pro hockey occupied a pre-eminent place in sports fans' minds while violence in pro football seemed beyond reproach--or at least, "part of the game."
I have heard that "part of the game" excuse too many times from hockey and football apologists. Sure, pain is part of the game. Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman Bobby Baun once scored an overtime goal against Howe's Red Wings after breaking an ankle during regulation. As the Soviets and Montreal have repeatedly proved, however, intimidation is less important than strength. Violence has no place. Gordie Howe has best tread the tightrope.
So why write a column on Gordie Howe, since his career--which spans five decades--renders any statement ineloquent? It is reassuring that as America grays, Gordie still laces on the blades. As long as there are Gordie Howes, sports fans will applaud the Youngbloods and boo the Tatums, regardless of talent.
More important, at the end of the convenient time span that has frequently been called the "Me Decade," reassurance lies in the fact that there remains at least one monument to endurance and selflessness. The beauty of sport stems from the symmetry inherent in the relationship between the individual and the team. Gordie Howe of the Hartford Whalers, whose familiar autograph graces even baseball gloves in Canada, mirrors the spirit.