Mark Howe of the Houston Aeros chased the puck into the corner of the rink, tailed closely by Winnipeg's Jean-Guy Gratton, who was tailed by Gordie Howe, who in turn was tailed by Christian Bordeleau. End of parade. Remembering the unheroic Bordeleau from his days in the National Hockey League, Gordie Howe automatically raised his right elbow and menacingly waved it at Bordeleau's face. As Howe expected, Bordeleau got the message and suddenly peeled away in another direction. Then Gratton, who had never had to reckon with Howe in the NHL, picked that moment to rub his own right elbow into Mark Howe's face and jab his left elbow into Mark's ribs. Splat! Mark's old man slammed Gratton into the boards, lathered his cheeks with a double dosage of elbows and fists and left him feeling like someone who had been run over by the 5:42 express. Across the ice Gratton's coach calmly nodded his head and smiled slightly. "I see that ol' Gordie hasn't mellowed a bit," said Bobby Hull. "Of course, I knew he'd never change his style. Why should he?"
For those NHL owners who still wonder what happened to their league's greatest scorers, there they were in Houston last week as ol' Gordie, 45, and young Bobby, 34 going on 43 and winger as well as coach, collided for the first time in the World Hockey Association and showed 8,137 noisy Texans how the game should be played. They both worked extra-long regular shifts, killed penalties and played the point on the power play, frequently befuddling their younger mates with their moves. At one point Howe, normally a right-handed shot, confused Winnipeg Goaltender Joe Daley by deftly switching the position of his hands on his stick and firing a hard forehand shot from his left side. Fortunately for Daley, the puck just missed the corner of the net. Another time, Hull gave Houston Defenseman Bill Prentice so many fakes—a leg here and a hip there, a shoulder here and an eye there—that Prentice actually fell down as Hull went around him. Fortunately for Prentice, Hull's slapshot also missed.
Howe spurred Houston to a 3-1 lead after two periods, prompting Coach Hull to lash his players verbally in the dressing room before the start of the third. What Hull said must have instilled fear in the Jets, for they stormed back, scored three quick goals and took a 4-3 lead. However, Howe sent the crowd—Houston's largest of the season but still some 1,200 short of capacity—home at least moderately happy with a 4-4 tie by cleverly setting up Frank Hughes for the tieing goal with only 47 seconds to play in regulation time.
"Gordie played like he was a little kid again, didn't he?" Hull said after the game. "Let's face it. He wasn't very happy around Detroit the last five years, and now he has a whole new life ahead of him. He deserves it, too."
Howe's decision to abandon retirement, resign his position as vice-president of the Detroit Red Wings in charge of counting paper clips and jump to the WHA after spending 27 years in the NHL was prompted by several factors. "I always said that someday I wanted to play on the same team with my two oldest sons," Gordie said, "but there was no way I could ever do that in the NHL." So, in a major coup, Houston signed 19-year-old Marty Howe, a defenseman, and his 18-year-old brother Mark, a left wing, last summer and then convinced their old man to play with them for at least one season.
Now Gordie plays on the same line with Mark while Marty takes a regular turn on defense. Although the three Howes occasionally are on the ice simultaneously, so far no public-address announcer has had to say: "Houston goal scored by Howe assisted by Howe and Howe." Marty and Mark pay $30 apiece each week for room and board at the Howe family's new $200,000 home in the Houston suburbs, but they may be evicted soon if they don't stop harassing their father. Mark reminded Gordie last week that Mark—not Gordie—was the season's leading goal scorer in the family (six to five at the time) and said he planned to ask Coach Bill Dineen for "a right wing with some scoring power." Marty even had the audacity to criticize his father for making a bad pass on the ice. "Fire the puck when you're passing, don't lob it," Marty said.
As part of his agreement with the Aeros, Howe will move into the front office when he ultimately decides to retire again as a player. "It won't be like Detroit," he says firmly. "I'll be doing something here. They think I can help them, that I know something about the game. I thought I could have helped the Red Wings too, but they didn't need help, I guess.
"A few days after I signed with Houston, Ned Harkness [Red Wing general manager] called me and asked what I planned to do with our home in Detroit. I told him we were going to rent it out, and he asked me if I'd like to rent it to Ted Garvin, the new coach of the Red Wings. Imagine that? All I said to Harkness was that I wanted to rent the house to someone who had some job security. The Wings had hired and fired five coaches in four years, and I sure didn't figure Garvin would last very long. What did he last? About a dozen games, that's all."
Like Hull, Howe's great leap also was partly motivated by financial considerations. The Aeros reportedly have guaranteed Gordie $1 million over the four years of his contract. Marty and Mark also signed four-year contracts with the Aeros for a combined $1 million. "We sometimes call ourselves the Howes-ton Aeros," says Jim Smith, the club's young president. "No matter. Signing Gordie absolutely ensured the franchise."
Howe has worked overtime to promote the Aeros, speaking to a different group practically every day. "That's what I had to do last year," Hull says, "and it aged me about four years. Let's see. Add on the five years that I lost in Chicago and that makes me, what, 43? Well, that's how old I feel at times." Hull was in an angry mood when he arrived at the rink two hours before the Houston game. His Jets were buried in fourth place, they had lost in overtime the night before in Los Angeles and, worse yet, Bobby's stomach was in turmoil. No wonder. There was no steak on the menu at his hotel, so Hull had a pre-game meal of cold soup, half a dozen hard rolls, some greasy french fries and a sour-smelling chicken salad sandwich.
"I'm just learning how tough it is to be a coach," Hull said. "Now I know what it was like for Billy Reay when I was with the Black Hawks. I'm fighting with myself. I can't get as tough with the players as I'd like. I'm treating them the way I'd like to be treated and, well, it isn't working. We're playing terrible hockey."
What bothers Hull more than that, though, is the terrible complacency that seems to have invaded hockey. "It's in both leagues, not just the WH A," he said. "Last year all our players had to prove themselves. Most of them were minor-leaguers getting their first real chance to play major league hockey, and they worked like crazy. Now they've renegotiated their contracts after having one good season and, well, there's no incentive left. Or at least there doesn't seem to be anything driving the players anymore. Don't blame the players, though. It's the owners' fault in most cases. They created the mess, let them live with it."
Neither Hull nor Howe displayed any lack of incentive later that night, however, and after the game they were slumped on benches in their respective dressing rooms for half an hour.
"Hull wants to know what your EKG reads," someone said to Howe.
"Tell him," replied Howe wearily, "that I'm going to have twins."
Player-Coach Hull lashed the laggard Winnipeg Jets into a rally and temporary lead.
The graying Howe administered an elbow massage and set up the Houston Aeros' tieing goal.