Gordie Howe, who will be 50 years old March 31 and a grandfather in April, grinned through the great divide that customarily distinguishes hockey players from people with front teeth. "I guess nowadays," he said, "you could call me poetry in slow motion."

It is a good line, entirely characteristic of Howe's soft-spoken, folksy humour. When he escaped the potato patches and poverty of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the mid-1940s, he took along an abiding ability to laugh at himself. He says he is more amused than chagrined these days when people call him "an old fossil," but he hasn't given anyone reason to believe it.

Surely not his teammates on the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers - including defenseman Marty Howe, 23, and right wing Mark Howe, 22, the eldest of his four offspring.

Nor the Whaler's opponents, who know that "Grandpa" Howe is the team's leading point scorer (24 goals, 43 assists through 58 games), one of the top 10 in the WHA, and still a formidable "enforcer" whose elbows have lost none of their legendary speed, deception and effectiveness.

And certainly not Coach Harry Neale, who says his graying superstar's consistent performance renders his age irrelevant: "I just think of him as one of my best players. There are certain situations in which I want Gordie out there, and I don't care how old he is."

In his mind Howe is 49, going on forever.

"I figure there are two definitions of greatness in athletics," says Neale, 41. "There are players who have a single great year or achievement, like Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs. But if the real standard is longevity of excellence, I don't think anybody is ever going to touch Gordie Howe. I just can't imagine it."

There have been remarkable gray-beards in sports. George Blanda, Satchel Paige, Pancho Gonzalez, Julius Boros and Hoyt Wilhelm come immediately to mind. Willie Shoemaker, Ken Rosewall and A.J. Foyt remain at the top of their professions, well into their 40s.

But given the punishing nature of hockey, which marks the passing years with scars and ravages skills as surely as ice turns to slush, Gordie Howe may well be the most astounding of them all.

He has played 30 seasons in the big time - 25 with the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings and, after a two-year retirement, five in the WHA. Now, six years after his induction into hockey's Hall of Fame, he continues to find youthful wellsprings of inspiration and enthusiasm.

Over the years he has had surgery on both knees, and elbow, a wrist and a hernia. He has endured numerous broken bones, more than 500 stitches, a near-fatal skull fracture.

The arthritis that became so painful in his left wrist that it forced his retirement in 1971 now afflicts both wrists and both shoulders. Yet when he says earnestly that he still enjoys hockey, and in fact has had more fun the past five years, playing with his boys, than ever before in his career, you believe him.

"The thing that's unbelievable," says Neale, "is the mental side. The traveling, the injuries, the pressure gets to you. Nobody is good enough to go out there night after night without a real passion to get the job done. How Gordie has kept himself psyched up all these years is beyond my comprehension."

In December, when he scored his landmark 1,000th major league goal, Howe said he would probably retire at the end, of the current season. That is what he says on days when hsi arthritis sends him for the aspirin - the strongest medication he will take except in extraordinary circumstances.

But he always leaves "a 10 percent option to change my mind." On the days when the pain is tolerable, he says cheerfuly, "I think I'll be like everybody else in America and retire at 65."

The Whalers had just routed the Quebec Nordiques, 5-1. Howe had picked up one assist by sprinting behind the Quebec net, digging out the puck and almost instinctively putting a pass on the stick of left wing George Lyle, who jammed it in from straight out in front.

But in the dressing room afterward, he stood naked in the middle of the floor and grimaced as team physician Dr. Vincent Turco probed behind his right shoulder blade.

Howe's shoulders slump at roughly the angle of a sloping roof, as if they have sagged over the years under the weight of his Popeye-like forearms. The midsection of his 6-foot, 205-pound frame is slightly paunchy, but his upper torso looks like that of a well-developed and powerful 25-year-old.

He was clearly annoyed at the muscle pull that made it difficult for him to raise his arm above his head. "That kid, No. 5 - LaRiver, something like that - kicked my feet out from under me," he said. "I was going to hit his head, but I changed my mind."

The culprit was Garry Lariviere, a hefty defenseman for the Nordiques, who late in the third period had tripped Howe - a breach of etiquette for which he was punished by immediate discomfort. Howe hit him with his stick, leaving him railing along the boards.

This was not standard operating procedure because the retribution was exacted immediately, in full view of both teams, 7,416 spectators at the Springfield Civic Center (where the Whalers have played their home games since the roof of the Hartford Civic Center caved in), and the officials.

Consequently, hockey's all-time leader in every offensive category, including penalty-time served, was sent off for two minutes for slashing Usually, Howe works more subtly, biding his time, picking a moment of maximum vulnerability to repay a foe.

"He can still leave his mark. Oh my, yes. He's the wrong guy to tangle with," says Neale. "The word on gordie is the same as it's always been: 'Dont't mess with him.'"

Having showered and had the sore shoulder attended, Howe went to his stall and dressed slowly. His hair, thining on top and silvery around the fringes, was still wet and tangled as he pulled on a black, ribbed turtle-neck. Then blacked slacks and black calf-length socks, which matched the nails on both of his big toes.

Marty came over and handed him a beer. "We missed the little guy tonight," Gordie said, referring to his other teammate-son, Mark, who had not suited up because of the flu.

Mark, playing on the line Gordie centers (having moved to that position after playing right wing most of his career), is the Whalers' second-leading point scorer (16 goals, 41 assists). "He shows signs of his father, which is the greatest compliment I can pay a hockey player," says Neale.

"It's a beautiful thing to see a guy playing with his kids. You take it for granted after awhile, but now and then it hits you. I remember one night in Quebec when Gordie got the puck on one side of the rink and Mark was just flying down the other side, right in front of our bench. I heard him yell, 'Dad, dad,' and there was the puck, right on his stick. He took it in for the goal. It just mad me tingle."

A young photographer approached Gordie with three prints he wanted authographed, to Rodney, Adam and Eugene. After carefully scrawling 'To Rodney, Best Wishes, Gordie Howe' across the picture, the "old man" started to inscribe the second, then hesitated.

"How'd I sign that one again? 'Best wishes? Okay, I'll make this one, 'all the best', and the last one, 'Good luck', so they don't look like they came off an assembly line."

He started to pull on his shoes, sturdy black wingtips with thick soles and thin, waxed laces, circa 1960. "Jesus, I had to dig pretty deep in the closet to come up with these," he said.

He is accustomed to taking a ribbing in the locker room from players half his age. A standard line when Marty or Mark used to have dates after a road game - both were married last summer - was, "Hey, does she have a mother . . . for Gordie?"

Gordie's traditional clothes are another favorite target, and he knew his outdated shoes would prompt some needling.

"These things may look funny, but they are indestructible," he announced loudly. "They don't make shoes like this anymore."

The same could be said for the man in the shoes.

When he stalked that historic thousandth goal in late November and early December, Howe played eight games with acute tendinitis in his left hand because the Whalers had a long injury list and needed his body, even though he could hardly shoot.

Obviously, it takes more than a sore shoulder to keep him off the ice, so he was back at the Civic Center for practice at 10:30 the morning after the Quebec game. He put so much effort into a 15-minute intrasquad game that winger Jack Carlson hoisted a towel on his stick and bellowed, "Hey, Gordie, we surrender."

"I've tried to give him days off, but Christ, you can't keep him away from the rink," says Neale. "He's the first guy here most of the time."

Neale had some misgivings last May when he learned the Whalers had signed the Howes, who had been unable to come to terms with the Houston Aeros after prolonged, acrimonious negotiations for renewal of the contract that had promised them an estimated $2.5 million over four years.

He was concerned enough to ask his old friend, Aero coach Bill Dineen, what special pitfalls he might incur in his relationship with a middle-aged folk hero and his hero and his two high-paid sons.

"He said there was no problem whatsoever, that all three Howes were good people adn from the old school, where the coach is right," Neale said. "None of the problems I anticipated has occured. They have been a delight."

The elder Howe made it amply clear to his new teammates during training camp, as he had in Houston, that he expected no preferential treatment. He ran and exercised with everyone through the increasingly torturous ordeal of getting in shape.

"I'm sure all our players admired him for it," says Neale, "and thought as they dragged themselves to bed exhausted, 'How does he do it?'"

Howe's quest for No. 1,000 became a team crusade. Like so many of his milestone goals - dating back to 1963, when it took him 12 games to get his 545th to surpass Maurice (Rocket) Richard as the all-time NHL scoring leader - it was a long time coming: 10 games.

In Hartford, where the countdown was a cause celebre, there was a premature celebration one night when a Howe shot went off the post, across the face of the net, and was tipped in by John McKenzie. Most of the Whalers and a sellout crowd thought Howe had scored, and the arena erupted.

"The guys came charging over to congratulate me, but I said, 'Get away from me, you dummys. I did't get the goal." Howe recalls, chuckling. "Poor McKenzie. When they announced that it was his goal, everybody booed him."

The real thing finally came on a power play, less than two minutes ingo a 6-3 Whaler victory at Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 7. Wing Mike Antonovich shot, hit the post with his own rebound and the puck came straight out to Howe at the right of goaltender John Garrett. He got good wood on it and rifled it clealy into the corner.

"I still had the sore hand. I could hardly hold the stick," Howe remembers. "That was one the few times I got the puck on my forehand side. I had numerous occasions before when I had great chances to tuck it in the net, but I had no strength whatsoever in the backhand.

"Tthe puck wasn't even on the ice; I caught it about an inch off. It went in, and then my teammates were all over me, beating me to death. It was a thrill.

"Finally Jack Carlson said, 'Hey, Gordie, a thousand goals don't make a career. Got off your butt and let's win this game.'"

When Gordie Howe, an eighth-grade dropout, left Saskatoon at age 16 to play professional hockey, his pledge was to earn enough money to buy his parents a house with indoor plumbing. That was his one great ambition.

Sixth youngest of the nine children of Albert Clarence and Katherine Howe, he knew no luxuries as a youngster. During the Depression it was a struggle for "Ab" Howe just to put food on the table. In the winter, when the vegetable garden was frozen over, the family sometimes are oatmeal three times a day.

"Our clothes had holes in them, but they were always clean," says Gordie, who speaks reverently of his late "Mum" and his father, 84, who still lives in the home Gordie purchased to fulfill his childhook promise.

"He did what he could," Gordie Howe said. "He was a helluva mechanic, but working in the pits of a gasoline station gave him some disease that paralyzed him for a long time. When he got back on his feet he went to work for the city, and I used to join him in the summers, doing cement work - the kind you can only do if you've got youth and foolishness."

Ab Howe was an expert rider, sulky driver, runner and perennial champion of hop-skip-and-jump contests in Saskatoon. "He didn't pass that on to me, because I can't run, jump or do bugger-all," Gordie says. But he can skate.

He got his first pair of skates by what can only be viewed as an act of providence. "Some lady came to the door with gunny sack full of old clothes," he says. "Mum scraped together a dollar or so and bought it. When she dumped all the goodies on the floor, the skates were at the bottom.

"They were way too big, actually. I had to wear six or seven pairs of socks to make them fit. At first I had to share them with my sister Edna; we got one skate each and did the best we could on the frozen potato patches. Then I came up with 10 cents and bought the other skate from my sister."

From then on, hockey was a part of his life. Every day during the winter, even when the temperature dipped to 40 or 50 degrees below zero, he was out practicing on the frozen sloughs with makeshift pucks: old tennis balls that a neighbor kept warm in her oven, or frozen horse dung.

When he was 15, the New York Rangers invited him to a training camp in Winnipeg, but he alone and uncomfortable there, so naive he didn't even know how to put on regulation hockey gear. He had always used old newspapers as shin guards. The Rangers wanted him to attend Notre Dame Academy, but timid and homesick, he declined and hitchhiked back to Saskatoon.

The next year a Red Wing scout convinced him to go to camp at Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit. "I asked him who else was going," Gordie recalls, " and he said 'a whole carload.' I said fine. I had no hesitation this time because I had companionship. There were 22 of us, mostly right from Saskatoon."

The next year he proved himself as both a goal-scorer and fighter for the Red Wings' farm club at Omaha. He was called up to the parent club at age 18 and got in 10 fights his first 10 games.

"Okay, son, you've proved you can fight," Jack Adams, a tyrant of a coach whose memory he reveres, told him. "Now let's see if you can play hockey."

Howe scored only seven goals in 1946-47, his first NHL season, but came into his won his second year, when he first put on the famous No. 9 jersey he had worn ever since.

He could, too, play hockey. He scored 853 goals and totaled 1,114 assists for the Red Wings, won six NHL scoring championships and was the league's most valuable player five times. He appeared in 21 NHL All-Star games.

Gordie Howe retired from the Red Wings in tearful ceremonies on Sep. 7, 1971. The arthritis had made him virtually a one-handed player, and at 43 he was struggling. For the first time 21 years, he was not among the top five scorers in the league.

He was made a vice president of the Red Wings at half his $100,000 playing salary (he had made headlines in 1963 by commanding $35,000, the most ever paid a hockey star those days of a six-team NHL)

But the front-office job turned out to be mindless and frustrating, almost divorced from club decisions. Gordie later described it as "getting the mushroom treatment - that's where they leave you in the dark, and every once and awhile come in and shovel some manure on you."

He had hoped to become a manager, scout, coach, P.R. man or combination of these, but was little more than a ceremonial glad-hander, expected to lie to the press and public for a bumbling management.

It was during this time of intense disenchantment that Gordie and Colleen Howe received word that the Houston Aeros of the fledging WHA had selected their two eldest sons in the 1973 draft - Mark on the first round and Marty on the 12th.

This was shocking news because both boys were under 20, the draft age set by the NHL. It had been assumed the WHA would abide by this restriction.

Clarence Campbell, the crusty NHL president, asked Gordie to intervene and prevent his sons from signing with the hated new rival league. He declined, saying the decision was the boys' to make.

But there was something else in the back of his mind: the renewed glimmer of a faded dream he had long since abandoned, of playing together professionally with his sons. He posed the possibility sheepishly at first: "I wonder what Houston would offer for the three Howes?

A deal was eventually concumated, and Gordie went through the twilight zone of getting back in competitive shape after a two-year layoff during which he had gained 12 pounds and gotten a trifle soft everywhere but in the elbows.

At times during his first WHA training camp he didn't think he would ever regain his touch. One day, Mark reported, he got so red in the face that sons feared Dad might be having a heart attack.

There were terrible doubts. Had this pipe dream been an unwise attempt to cheat the calendar? Would it end in disgrace and tarnish a grand reputation?

But Gordie persisted, and finally the instincts and incomparable gifts resurfaced. Said Colleen Howe in her book, My Three Hockey Players, "He was an actor suddenly remembering lines from an old play."

Any playwright who had suggested this script would have been panned for being excessively melodramatic.

Just 21 seconds into the Aeros' preseason opener at Madison Square Garden, Gordie scored on a pass from Mark. The Aeros went on to win the first of their two WHA championships. Mark was rookie of the year. Gordie was the WHA's leading scorer and MVP, and award that was fittingly renamed the Gordie Howe Trophy.

While Gordie might never have attempted a renaissance if the Aeros hadn't tropedoed hockey's age of consent by drafting Mark and Marty, he bristles at the frequently made suggestion that he could only have made and impact on the ice the second time around because the WHA was an inferior league.

"Once I got back in shape, I didn't feel any different than in 1969, when I scored 103 points (44 goals, 59 assits) for the Red Wings," he says. "People forget I had my most productive year in the NHL when I was 41.

"As for the WHA not being able to cut it with the NHL, that's ridiculous. The Whalers played seven exhibition games against NHL clubs this season and were 5-1-1."

Colleen Howe, matriach of the clan and chancellor of its exchequer as boss of Howe Enterprises, sat in her office in the Whalers' executive suite and talked about the end of teh Houston idyll, the bitter falling-out with the Aeros' management.

A tough, strong-willed businesswoman who says she has loved to work since she "was 14 and lied about my age to get a summer job taking tickets in a theater," she handled the negotiations. The problems arose, she says, when the team ran into financial problems and was sold to new owners who "had no idea what a sophisticated player's contract entails."

"The negotiations never got off the ground floor and became very antagonistic and unpleasant," she said. "The new owners were insulting, personally and in what they were offering us to stay."

The harsh words seem incongruous because Colleen speaks as softly as her husband does, though at much greater length. This was her birthday, and her office looked like a florist shop with bouquets and arrangements that had come in - including several from the Whalers' management which gave the Howes a multi-million-dollar contract after flirtations with the NHL Boston Bruins and Red Wings came to naught. Colleen's voice was as sweet as the chrysanthemums as she noted that the Howes are currently suing the Aeros in a Houston bankruptcy court for the remainder of their money.

As she talked, Gordie leaned back in a easy chair near her desk and closed his eyes. He has often said that if there is one key to his longevity, it is his abilty to relax. But he wasn't really snoozing. Every now and then he'd wink and make a relevant comment.

When Colleen said she would like to see Gordie play another year if he feels up to it - something Neale and Whalers' Director of Hockey Operations Jack Kelley are already urging - he briefly opened both eyes.

"If I do," he said, "you might have to take all those flowers and put them on my chest."

He insists there is no way he will still be playing hockey if and when his youngest son, 17-year-old Murray, who currently plans to play college hockey, decides to turn pro. But there is always that 10 percent option to change his mind.

Indeed, people have started kidding that if his first grandchild, which Mark's wife Ginger is expecting next month, is a boy, Gordie will immediately start thinking about a three-generation Howe line.

After all, he doesn't relish the thought of relinquishing his all-time scoring goal leadership to old friend and rival Bobby Hull of the Winnipeg Jets, now 39 and approaching his 1,000th goal.

"Bobby's still got a helluva shot." Gordie observed recently, "and, goodness, he's just a young man."