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
when -- and if -- there's a pro hockey merger.
Calling the triple signing their "most significant move since joining the world Hockey Association in its first year five seasons ago," the Whalers dueled and won a battle with NHL teams to gain the services of the most famous name in hockey.
Though details of the contracts were not disclosed, the Whalers' managing general partner, Howard L. Baldwin, said, "The Howes will be in Hartford for next season and for many years to come."
All three Howes played with the WHA's Houston Aeros for the last four years and had been sought by NHL teams in Montreal, Detroit and Boston before deciding on Hartford.
, 49, has played in more games, scored more points and been charged with more penalties than any hockey player in history. He has said that the greatest thrill in his 29-year-career was playing on the same team with sons Mark, 22, and Marty, 23.
Another son Murray, 16, plays junior hockey in Toronto. Gordie's wife Colleen, their 18-year-old daughter Cathy, and Mark and Marty's fiancées were at his side when the signings were announced Monday.
"There are only two reasons why I blink a lot," said Gordie, facing a barrage of TV cameras and radio microphones. "I'm either tired or I'm nervous and excited. And, I'm not tired."
For Baldwin, it was the biggest moment since the Whalers played their first game in their first year in Boston. "Five weeks ago, I promised you we would do what had to be done to put a championship team in Hartford. 'We did," he said, not denying that this three-player transaction would be the only one.
Gordie, after his 25-year career with the NHL's
, retired for two years before joining his two sons when they turned pro with Houston. His final retirement has been decided on a year-to-year basis, and he said that this year would be no different.
"It will be a putrid decision to make," he said. "I will leave it open, go to training camp, and see if I can get rid of my baby fat. If I'm physically fit, it could sway me to play another year, but I was never in more pain than I was last year."
If the six-time NHL Most Valuable Player decides to retire as an active player, he'll move into the Whalers' front office and be involved in any number of responsibilities, most notably public relations and on-ice work with younger players.
In his 29 pro seasons, he scored 2,178 points on 907 goals and 1,271 assists and played in 1,972 games, all pro hockey records.
Sons Mark and Marty have been called two of the brightest young stars in the game, and they played integral roles with the Aeros when Houston twice won the WHA championship.
Mark, who'll celebrate his 23rd birthday Saturday, has scored 135 goals in his four years as a left winger. He also played defense for the Aeros and has been labeled by some hockey experts as the next Bobby Orr.
Marty, strictly a defenseman, enjoyed his best season with Houston last year when he scored 17 goals and finished with 45 points. He at one time wanted to play football, not hockey, and didn't concentrate on the indoor sport until his sophomore year in high school.
Some people, tongue-in-cheek, say his mother wouldn't let him do otherwise.
The major negotiator for her husband and two sons' pro contracts, Mrs. Howe handled most of the talks with the Whalers.
"The security, happiness and the opportunity to be associated with an organization like this brought us her," she said. "Hartford had it all in total. But, now that the negotiating is over, our work here has just begun."
For a time last year, there was talk of a trade that would have brought the Howe family to Hartford in midseason. "The only reason we didn't come then," said Gordie, "is because I've never been traded in my life and I wasn't about to be traded then. We had a certain amount of pride to fulfill our four-year obligation with Houston."
But , when the Whalers flew Mrs. Howe here to ceremonially drop a puck, Gordie said he knew then that he liked the people in Hartford.
So did Mark after the Whalers honored his father when they presented him with a rocking chair after he scored his 900th career goal.
"I said then," said Gordie, "Here's a guy (Baldwin) who shows so much class. I couldn't say no to him.
"And, once the negotiations sarted, he was relentless. Hell, he wouldn't let us sleep.
"In my old body here, I may be tired, but I'm excited. It would be beautiful to win the WHA championship now and the NHL championship later. We're going to work awfully hard at it."
Whalers' director of Hockey Operations Jack Kelley said, "If Gordie decides to go to the post one more time, it would be just fine with me."
Whalers' coach Harry Neale said, "I could think of nothing nicer to have my hockey idol play hockey for me."
Gordie Howe, the newest and most famous Whaler, said "We'll see. All I know is, when all the cards were placed on the table, everything kept pointing to Hartford.
"And, as long as there's an empty seat, we haven't done our job. We want to be totally involved and, with the long-term contract, there's no rush to decide what my future title will be or when I'll retire.