The title of his book should not be "Gordie Howe" but "Gordie, how?"

He did not skate in with the Ice Age, but he did arrive in the National Hockey League the same year a gadget called television was becoming mildly popular.

It's true. Gordie Howe began playing two years before "The Milton Berle Show" and three years before "Hopalong Cassidy." His first NHL season, 1946, was three years before Casey Stengel became manager of the Yankees.

"Can I see that a moment?" he said yesterday, a few minutes before practice at Capital Centre and a few hours before he and the Hartford Whalers played the Caps. It was an exceedingly worn newspaper clipping, and the headline read:

"Gordie Howe Becomes Hockey's Highest Paid."

There was a subhead:

"At $35,000."

That was Aug. 29, 1963, about the time the athletic world began to spin crazily on an axis of dollar signs. These days, a high-sticker might pay $35,000 in income taxes, or pay somebody $40,000 to avoid it. Surely, Howe's total income the last few years includes at least one more comma.

The clipping quoted the manager-coach of the Detroit Red Wings, Sid Abel, as saying of the apparently historic wages for Howe: "The best player in the National Hockey League deserves to be the highest paid."

Howe was a pup of 35 then. Yesterday, less than five months shy of his 52nd birthday, he read the clip, laughed and said:

"That's when I found out there were three more guys on my own team making more money than me."

He looked every bit his age, but there was a reason. Flu. It has run through nearly every Whaler, in fact caused Howe's son Mark, to miss the practice. The old man, though clearly drained, was among the first players onto the ice and among the last off.

On Jan. 1 in Edmonton, Howe will have played in five decades in the NHL. He is one of the league's shiniest ornaments at the moment, but hardly a detriment, carrying a plus-10 rating on an 8-8-8 team after last night's 3-3 tie.

Howe scored the first goal of the night although Gary Inness probably should have been given an assist. There was little outward emotion from Howe, understandable enough since he has experienced the thrill 1,064 other times in his pro life.

To put that in perspective, Howe has scored only 100 fewer goals himself than the entire Cap team has produced in more than five years.

With Gary Cooper features, although Cooper presumably had all his teeth, and no scars about his face -- even after "High Noon" -- Howe musters smiles during practice.

And remarkable deference during games.

"There's a reluctance to hit him hard," said the Caps' Mike Gartner, who played against Howe in the WHA last season and with him in an All-Star Game. "He was 31 the year I was born" -- and here Gartner simply shook his head at such an astonishing fact -- "and he's always been my idol."

But there is another reason Gartner and others hit Howe again and again, but not HAR-der. Howe also is a legendary fighter, so even the sons of former players who tested Howe are not anxious to create embarrassment for themselves.

"And he's too old even to be your father," a Cap equipment man told Gartner.

"Right," said Gartner. "I wasn't even born in his prime."

Has Gartner checked himself before checking Howe?

"I've had a chance to hit him hard, but just taken out of the play," he said. "I've not seen anyone crunch him yet. He's still a strong man.

"And he seems to want to win as much as everyone else."

He surely is as gracious as any athlete in his position. Ill and with no original questions left to be answered, he still patiently plodded through three interviews after practice yesterday.

"My first year (1945-'46 with Omaha of the USHL), I made $2,300," he said. "And I saved $700 of it, enough to put indoor plumbing in my folks' home. We still let the outhouse stand, so nothing would look out of place.

"That's a little joke."

Some in the NHL called Howe's breaking a two-year retirement to sign with Houston in 1971 and provide credibility to the WHA more than a little joke.

"There once was a stigma about anyone over 30 playing in the NHL," he said, still in good humor. "You had one down year after 30 and they were thinking the worst. There always was someone ready to take your place (when the league had just six teams)."

But the George Allen of the NHL, Punch Imlach, proved in the early and mid-'60s that players well past 30 still could win the Stanley Cup. So Howe still thrives, although he insists this will be his last season.


"I'll retire just like everybody else," he has said, "at 65."

One presumes that anyone who has gone through as many legend-returns-to-the-ice questions as Howe has developed a ready staple of one-liners, to be quickly offered while quickly seeking privacy.

Howe said no. Fact is, he said, the one he told Frank Herzog was new. That one went: "Somebody told me hockey was like sex -- as long as you're enjoying it, why stop?"

Inspiration for the line came from his father.

"He's 87," Howe said, "and a man recently asked him how long the sex drive lasts. He told him to go ask somebody older."