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When Gordie Howe Signed, Hockey Became Relevant In Hartford

BaseballNHLHoward BaldwinDetroit Red WingsMontreal CanadiensHouston Aeros

For a city starving for a sports identity, the arrival of the greatest player in the history of hockey was met with a collective gasp.

Gordie Howe was 49 years old when he brought his two sons to town in 1977. The New England Whalers were a struggling World Hockey Association franchise still carving out a niche in Central Connecticut when the Howes signed free agent contracts.

Suddenly, the Whalers were relevant.

"The New England Whalers improved their hockey fortunes immeasurably Monday morning when they signed Gordie, Mark, and Marty Howe to long-term, multi-year contracts that almost assures the City of Hartford a place in the National Hockey League when — and if — there's a pro hockey merger," The Courant's Tommy Hine reported May 24, 1977.

And indeed, the Whalers did land a spot in the NHL when leagues merged in 1979. Howe and his sons had been playing for the WHA Houston Aeros, and he was viewed as a cornerstone to the merger, drawing interest from the San Diego Mariners and other WHA franchises.

The Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings — Howe's former team — were also bidding. But Howe and his wife Colleen, who negotiated the contract, forged an easy rapport with Whalers' boss Howard Baldwin and the team secured the family with a 10-year contract.

Howe had retired in 1971, ending a 25-year NHL career in which he earned the reputation as the game's best all-round player. He was tough, he was skilled, and he was respected during a career in Detroit.

But two years later he came out of retirement to play with his sons. He spent four years with Houston, winning two WHA titles.

When it appeared he would be either retiring again or leaving after his four-year contract expired, Howe became the subject of trade rumors. WHA franchises, sensing the looming merger, were looking for marquee players. The Minnesota Fighting Saints came close to signing Bobby Orr and the Whalers chased Howe as the franchise attempted to create interest in Hartford and boost attendance before the merger.

But Howe shut down all trade talk, telling Houston's management he had never been traded before and he wasn't about to let it happen at age 48.

When the season ended and the Howes became free agents, Baldwin made an all-out push to bring the family to Connecticut.

"Once the negotiations started, he was relentless," Howe said after signing. "Hell, he wouldn't let us sleep."

The Howes were introduced at a press conference at the Hotel Sheraton's Mark Twain Room. The room was adorned with a green and white sign that read, "Hartford Welcomes The Howes."

Wrote Courant columnist Bill Lee: "Man and boy, I've worked in this city for more years than I like to count, but I've never seen a block busting press conference with the impact of the one the Whalers held at the Hotel Sheraton Monday afternoon."

Not only were the Whalers getting a Hall of Famer in Gordie, but 22-year-old Mark was viewed as a future star, compared more than once to Orr. And Marty, a stay-at-home defensive defenseman, was viewed as a good player.

The buzz extended beyond the sports pages. Consider this May 27, 1977 editorial in The Courant: "In hockey lingo, a player who scores three goals in a single game has performed a hat trick. The same term could be applied to the hiring by the New England Whalers of three members of the Howe family."

A few weeks after the signing, The Courant's Colin McEnroe reported the Howes were purchasing a $225,000 home in Glastonbury. In October, Owen Canfield's lengthy profile included photos of the Howes at the their home — Gordie lifting a box as the couple unpacked, Colleen and Gordie looking at memorabilia, the couple walking near their pool.

Hartford had a celebrity and he happened to be an aging hockey player.

"Harford was our crescendo," Colleen told The Courant's Jeff Jacobs in 2000.

In 1977-78, Gordie led the Whalers in goals (34) and points (96). And he turned 50 in March of that season, just a few months after the Civic Center roof collapsed.

The Whalers would lose to Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets in the Avco Cup finals in 1978 and they played their home games in Springfield the next season. But the Civic Center was repaired and enlarged just as the Whalers were moving into the NHL.

Howe scored 15 goals and skated in 80 games for the Whalers in 1979-80, fulfilling his dream of playing with his sons in the NHL. By the time he retired in 1980, he was 52 years old and very much a fixture in Hartford.

In the fall of 1980, he opened a restaurant on New London Turnpike in Glastonbury. Gordie's Place's was just down the road from the Howe's Glastonbury home and he was frequently at the restaurant.

In 1981 Colleen sought the Republican nomination for the 1st Congressional seat. She lost to former Hartford Mayor Ann Uccello in the primary, but her foray into politics attracted some heavy hitters. A fundraiser to pay off campaign debt brought baseball Hall of Famer Al Kaline and hockey icon Wayne Gretzky to Gordie's Place, where they chatted with donors.

The restaurant closed in 1982. That same year, The Courant reported on a rift between the family and the team, as Gordie's role in the front office was unclear and Marty was relegated to the minor leagues. Mark, whose career nearly ended when he was severely cut in upper thigh December 1980, was traded to the Flyers after the 1981-82 season.

Gordie and Colleen eventually moved back to Michigan, although Marty kept a home in Glastonbury. Mark, a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, played 22 professional seasons, including five with the Whalers.

Colleen died in 2009, seven years after she was diagnosed with Pick's disease. Gordie, now 85, has made occasional visits to Hartford in recent years — he spoke to the Glastonbury High hockey team two years ago and was spotted at a mid-week AHL game at the XL Center in 2012, sitting with Mark, a Red Wings scout.

In 2011, the family was honored by the Connecticut Whale — then run by Baldwin — as a banner saluting them as "Hockey's First Family" was raised to the rafters. Gordie signed autographs and met fans that night.

"Hartford was very important for our family," Marty told The Courant.

That worked both ways.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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