Briar Patch

RETURN OF THE OLD PUCKER

THE ASTRODOME HAS REALLY OUTDONE itself. They had the help, though, of Hollywood press agentry and one of the bigger mouths in professional sports, so the Dome can’t take all the credit. Irregardless of culpability, it was an impressive show, that King-Riggs tennis match, and it drew the largest media attendance in single-event sports history.

All those publications that always cover tennis or sports had writers there, as well as dozens of magazines that rarely think about covering either. Plus there were sportswriters from daily newspapers all over the world: Australia, Japan, Italy; there were eight sportswriters just representing London newspapers. All of this, of course, is harmless enough, just powerful testimony to the drawing power of ballyhoo and hoopla. The only sad thing about it all is that almost none of those “sportswriters” ever wandered over to an obscure Houston skating rink where one of the most truly dramatic events in sports is about to take place.

Houston seems an unlikely location for the greatest comeback ice hockey ever saw. Ice in Texas has always been something to pour whiskey around, and the notion of skating about on it, no less using it for a playing field, appears alien at the very least. It’s strange enough to see Gordie Howe, now gray-haired and a little paunchy, flashing up-ice with that characteristic easy grace, but to see it happen in Houston borders on the bizarre.

Before his retirement in 1970, Gordie Howe had become the greatest hockey player in the game’s history, a man who’s always called (in the kind of apples-and-oranges analogy that sportswriters are prone to) “the Babe Ruth of Ice Hockey.” In a 25-year playing career with the Detroit Red Wings, Gordie Howe had broken every hockey record that imaginative statisticians could invent, not the least of which was his own longevity. Prior to Gordie Howe, the longest career in the bloody, bruising sport spanned 20 years, and that was held by a defenseman. But Gordie was a wingman, like a forward in basketball, and hockey fans always considered it slightly miraculous that he held on as long as he did.

And yet here he is, in Houston of all places, wearing that legendary Number 9 and preparing to play once again at the

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