the concusser

A quick review of Gordie Howe’s career on the ice suggests that he suffered at least six concussions in his time (Head Count, February 10). Another question might be: how many did he cause?

Don’t Mess Around With Gordie: Lou Fontinato at the hospital, February 1, 1959.

They don’t keep stats on this at the NHL, and (so far) there aren’t any independent tracker websites, either. As with the hits to Howe’s head, this is an all-anecdotal study, non-definitive, unmedical, considered accurate to within plus or minus a number we haven’t really figured out yet, altogether without prejudice, not to be tried at home, nor shown to unaccompanied minors or anyone else liable to get the wrong idea about hockey.

Start with Howe’s rookie season. There’s a story about the first time he stepped on Forum ice in Montreal in 1946. Wily old Rocket Richard is supposed to have challenged him, as a rite of Howe’s passage, I suppose, though Richard might just have been mad. And Gordie? Gordie clocked him, as the story’s retailed — for example, at espn.com on the occasion of Howe’s 80th birthday:

Just a teenager, Howe didn’t back down; in fact, he knocked out Richard with one punch. Years later, Howe would knock Richard out of the record books as well. On Jan. 16, 1960, Howe had a goal and an assist to pass Richard as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. He later scored his 545th career goal (Nov. 10, 1963) to pass Richard as the most prolific goal-scorer in the game.

A good story: in the same moment that the Rocket crumples to the ice, Mr. Hockey®’s legend arises. 

Although. Check back on the game in supposed question, October 26, 1946, and while the record does show that Detroit coach Jack Adams dressed four rookies on the night (Hugh Millar, Pat Lundy, Gordon Howe, and Cliff Simpson), as The Gazette wrote at the time, “None was conspicuous.”

Turns out the actual incident was 1949, January 29, a Saturday. Detroit won the game 5-2, if you’re wondering. Let The Ottawa Citizen tell the tale:

The game was a rough affair and Maurice Richard got a going over in fights with Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. The Rocket drew 21 minutes in penalties for his efforts from referee King Clancy and suffered a bruised hip which kept him out of the New York debacle.

That’s part of it. (The “debacle” was the following night when the Rangers beat the Habs 9-0.) The Windsor Daily Star tells some more of what happened against Detroit:

The big blowup came in the second period when Richard crashed into Gordie Howe. They came up … fighting, swinging bare fists. They were pried apart and started the brawl all over again, rolling around the ice.

Richard was finally shunted to the penalty box. Still sizzling mad, he looped a punch at Sid Abel that grazed Referee King Clancy’s whiskers. That, along with a few choice words directed at Clancy, cost Richard his misconduct.

It was more than 10 minutes before the game got under way …

That doesn’t sound very decisive. Can this really be the fight that Richard was talking about in a 1999 interview? “I lost just one fight,” he said. “That was to Gordie Howe. It was just one punch and it happened in Montreal.”

Maybe so. I’ve been told that Red Kelly, who was on the ice that night, rated it a draw.

There’s nothing in The Flying Frenchmen (1971), the book he (sort of) wrote with Stan Fischler. He does say Howe was dirty but, later, they got to be friends. He says Ted Lindsay was a bad man “with everything — his mouth, his stick — on and off the ice.” Although — wait — Richard does mention the night he fought the whole Production Line in succession, Lindsay, Abel next, then: “Howe came along and got the best of me.”

Not to forget the whole Bootnose side of the story. The punch that looped past King Clancy landed, I guess, on Sid Abel’s nose, which broke in either two places or three — reports vary. Either way, it remained squashed in such a way that his teammates nicknamed him, thereafter, “Bootnose” a.k.a. “Old Bootnose.” Abel’s 2000 obituary in The New York Times tells it this way:

After Howe flattened Richard in a fight, Abel skated by and asked him, “How do you like that?” and added a reference to Richard’s French-Canadian ethnicity. Richard responded by re-arranging Abel’s nose with a punch.

Howe, reflecting on the fight, said: “Today, if you called someone what Sid called Rocket, you’d get called up before a judge.”

So maybe, probably, did Abel suffer the concussion that night? If he did, can it reasonably be pinned on Howe’s account?

I’m not sure. There’s a version in which Howe ducks as Richard swings and Abel pays the price, and if that’s how it happened, then yes.

Howe’s own recollection is that he’d noticed that Richard liked to cut to the middle of the ice to shoot. From And … Howe!:

So one time, as he came across the blue line, I really nailed him. We ended up in a fight.

There was a flurry of people around. Somebody pushed me from behind and I went down on one knee. And for some reason, Rocket was under my left knee. I waited, and when he looked up, I popped him. I whacked him a pretty good one. Then all hell broke loose, and when they got us apart we were yapping like jaybirds at one another. Then Sid Abel poked his nose in, and said to the Rocket, “Aw, you big frog, you finally got what you were asking for.” And Rocket goes — BAM! — and breaks Sid’s nose. Then I started to laugh, it looked so darn funny. Then Sid went in and did a job on the Rocket again, again.

Rocket was talking about that episode a little while ago. He said, “I took on your whole damn team, no wonder I lost.” Even in a loss, he could be proud. The guy is unbelievable.

Interesting — doesn’t answer the question, though. Did Howe concuss Richard or not?

A couple of months later, March, he “smashed” Montreal’s Murph Chamberlain with a right to the face. That sounds extremely concussive. But what about this one, from 1948? The Toronto Star reported Howe’s encounter with Toronto’s Howie Meeker:

Howie swung once and buried his head in Howe’s midriff. Gord promptly hit him three on top of the noggin, raising a set of goose eggs.

That’s a harder case to diagnose. Is this the place to mention just how jolly hockey’s old-time violence seems to sound when you read it on the page? How cheerful and collegial? Is it just the time that’s passed, transforming grim truth into something more palatable? That can happen. Or maybe that’s how it was and those of us who’ve never been hit three on the noggin in an NHL game will never ever really understand.

Maybe could it be a survival mechanism that hockey players have developed to inoculate the outrage that might take hold if people kept reading about the nonsensical brutishness that the game has nourished for a hundred-odd years now? Spiders do that, don’t they, when they wrap their prey up in the web before they start to chew? I’m thinking here of that scene in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets bundled up by the huge spider, you know, what’s the spider — Shelob. Is that what it is, the jocularity — a retroactive prose anesthetic that spares us the pain of being eaten alive by hockey’s inane violence?

Howe himself tells of knocking out Stan Mikita, who was annoying him, with the proverbial one punch. This was when Mikita was new to the NHL and Ted Lindsay had him running around high-sticking guys, including Gordie: he got him in the lip. He didn’t think he’d get away with it but then Howe didn’t come after him.

Nor the next game they played against one another. Two more games went by, nothing, Howe ignored him.

Then.

Chicago was in Detroit. Here’s Howe telling it:

I set up Alex Delvecchio going in on the Chicago net all alone. Stan and I were alone at the other end of the ice, so I pulled my hand out of my glove real fast and hit him right between the eyes. It knocked him right out. They picked him up and put him on the bench, and gave him smelling salts. He said the first thing that came into focus was a teammate, I think it was Dennis DeJordy, their backup goaltender. Stan said, ‘What happened?’ And Dennis said. “Number nine.’ Stan laughs about it now.

Mikita himself tells a slightly different story. He found himself on the ice, no idea what had hit him. He stumbled to the bench — Detroit’s. The players there pushed him back onto the ice before he made it to safety. “I still don’t know if it was Gordie’s elbow or his bare hand,” Mikita wrote last year, in his most recent memoir, “but I know how I felt. In those days you used to say you had your bell rung. Nowadays, it might be called a concussion. Anyway, I was back taking my regular shift before long.”

Also there’s this, though I’m not sure if it’s the same story with a different twist or a whole other Howe-borne concussion for Mikita. This was in an interview in 2008. Howe was trying to explain the code that once ruled the rinks:

If somebody stuck a stick to me, he was going to share mine a little bit, and that’s not bragging. It’s respect. Stan Mikita missed me once and speared my leg. I said: “OK, you’ve got one coming.” And then he gave me a little lip back from his seated position on the bench. I then said: “There’s going to be a little cancelled Czech just as soon as I get the chance.” He cut in on me one shift and I really drilled him — I think I knocked him out — and the next period he came by and said: “Are we even?” And that was it. We became good friends.

The cheeriness is so universal surrounding the old-time mayhem, it’s almost infectious.

“Don’t Mess Around With Gordie” was the headline over the feature Life magazine ran on February 16, 1959 to commemorate Howe’s grisly encounter with Lou Fontinato. A couple of weeks earlier, Detroit had beaten the Rangers in New York, 5-4. “A bruising battle,” is what the newspapers said at the time. Howe was picking on New York’s Eddie Shack when Fontinato “became enraged.” Life:

He threw down his gloves and went for Gordie. “There was nothing I could do but fight,” said Howe. For a full minute the who whaled away behind the cage.

The officials left them alone. Other accounts I’ve seen suggest the referee and the linesmen were frozen in awe, couldn’t move to intervene. The referee on the night was Frank Udvari. He said that the rights Howe was throwing made a sound on Fontinato’s head that was like nothing Udvari had ever heard before, except possibly somebody chopping wood. “And all of a sudden,” he told Mordecai Richler, “Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

Life has that too, actually, a teammate of Howe’s describing the sound of his punches: “whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Next day The New York Times catalogued the night’s damage:

Fontinato, possible fractured nose and a positive headache.
Shack, Rangers, three stitches in scalp and an aching back
Warren Godfrey, Detroit, suspected concussion.
Harry Howell, Rangers, four stitches in chin.

“Howe’s a pretty good fighter,” Fontinato said subsequently. “He kinda re-arranged my nose. But I wasn’t losing.”

As Howe tells it, Fontinato was skating at him at full speed, with fist cocked. If Howe hadn’t dodged, said Bill Gadsby, his career would have been over. Howe, in his book, explains about immobilizing an opponent’s “power arm” during a fight, which he did. “I hit him so hard my finger came out of joint, and that was pretty much the end of the fight. That hurt. Did I feel sorry for him? No.”

So that’s definitely one. How many are we up to? Four? Five? He didn’t mellow as he grew older, as far I can tell. Dave Bidini has a story in Tropic of Hockey about Gordie lining up against a rookie who was playing in his, yes, “first pro game.” A bit of background: Howe used to blink a lot, which is how he picked up the clever nickname Blinky. Maybe it was from his 1950 near-death run-in with Toronto’s Teeder Kennedy; could have been due to (a doctor told him) the red dye from his hockey gloves getting in his eyes when he wiped the sweat away. Anyway, Bidini’s story is that the kid in the WHA was blinking at Howe, who took it for mockery. Bidini writes:

The puck dropped, Gordie threw off his gloves and, with two blows, put him in the hospital.

Only for his teammates to tell him that, um, the poor rookie was a blinker himself: “The kid’s got it twice as bad as you.”

A Detroit doctor eventually diagnosed a virus of the eye and with medication, the blinking stopped. That’s in And … Howe!, where it’s followed the “hilarious” story of a night in New York against the Rangers and a guy named Gordie Stratton came out and started blinking like hell and when the puck dropped what else could Howe do but spear him and down he went and then Howe’s friend Bill Gadsby told him … yes, that’s right, it’s the Bidini story all over again, with a few variations, including no concussion.

Not that Howe is entirely accurate telling his own story: of Winnipeg’s two Stratton brothers, it was the younger one, Art, who played for the Rangers. Gordie was a very good minor-leaguer, but he never got a game in the NHL — and not one blink.

Is that all? As far as the concussions administered by Gordie Howe during his long and distinguished career, my sense is, not even close. But why take my intuition on this when you can have Gordie’s son Marty’s?

His dad didn’t fight much, as Marty recalls in And … Howe! “Normally he just dinged guys over the head with a stick.” From the younger Howe’s first professional game, in 1973, playing his dad and brother Mark as Houston Aeros, he recalls “this suicidal player” challenging Gordie Howe to a fight at the face-off. “Come on, Howe!”

Gordie didn’t even blink. He hit that guy right square between the eyes with his stick. The guy wasn’t wearing a helmet. He went down like a ton of bricks, holding his hands on his head where blood was squirting.

As soon as Gordie came out of the penalty box having served his major, another guy came after him and — well, of course, what else, the same thing happened again.

“He’d hit guys there all the time and giving them three to five stitches every time he did it,” Marty writes. “I could never understand it. If I hit a guy over the head, I wouldn’t know if it was going to kill him or not even cut him, but Gordie was a skilled practitioner.”