When Gordie Howe Signed, Hockey Became Relevant In Hartford

At the XL Center in Hartford, Gordie Howe, left, and his sons Mark, center, and Marty, right, waive as a banner is raised honor their family. (Courant File Photo)

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.