If Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Dave Keon showed up to sign autographs, it would be enough to send a lot of hockey fans racing full speed with pens unsheathed.
Today at Capital Centre followers of the ice sport get an even better treat. They can watch the venerable trio play for the Hartford Whalers in a 1:30 contest against the Washington Capitals.
This is a milestone for Howe, who toured the White House yesterday as an appetizer, because it marks his 2,400th major-league game. That is a lot of miles on skates since his debut in Detroit in 1946, when only one Capital, goalie Wayne Stephenson, had let out his first postnatal wail.
Howe will reach his 52nd birthday in three weeks and this likely will be his final appearance at Capital Centre. It is the first time here for Hull, 41, who will be playing his 1,643rd major-league game. Keon, two weeks from his 40th birthday, plays No. 1549.
Perhaps the only unique experience left for Howe is the chance to play on the same line with these fellow legends of the sport. However, Coach Don Blackburn, who served as guide for Gordie and son Mark on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, has not yet deigned to go that far with his age-over-beauty concept.
Howe currently is skating on the Whaler's fourth line with former Capital Greg Carroll and Staten Island native Nick Fotiu. Hull, who scored a goal on his first shot -- slap shot, naturally -- as a Whaler Thursday, skated with Bernie Johnston and Dave Debol, Keon, the artful faceoff man and playmaker, is centering Jordy Douglas and another notable Capital castoff, Tom Rowe.
Howe recently netted his 800th regular-season goal in the NHL and his overall total, counting playoffs and World Hockey Association competition, is 1,069.
Hull, the Golden Jet, is the only other man to have more than 1,000 goals, registering 1,017. Hull scored 77 in his third WHA season and five times reached 50 for Chicago in the NHL. Howe's top total was 49, back in 1952-53.
Keon, a longtime star with Toronto, has "only" 521 goals, but he can claim 784 assists and boasts another most admirable statistic. In all those 1,548 games, Keon has served just 121 minutes in penalties.
Howe's career statistics list 2,375 official penalty minutes. In addition, there have been uncounted times when his flashing elbows or stick scored a hit that either went unseen by the officials or was shrugged off as self-defense.
On the Capitals' last visit to New England, Howe proved a most belligerent grandpa. He speared Paul Mulvey, punched Leif Svensson and and grumped over a check by Ryan Walter. His classic move was an elbow aimed at Bengt Gustafsson's head. Reflexes somewhat diminished by age, Howe landed only a glancing blow, then heard a whistle and skated to the penalty box, where he sat down. The whistle was for offside, no penalty was called and Howe left, only slightly less red-faced than referee Wally Harris.
In contrast to Howe's policy of landing the first blow to discourage assault, Hull and Keon have followed the Biblical directive of turning the other cheek to muggers. Hull became so weary of the constant bludgeoning of Winnipeg linemates Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson a few years ago that he went on strike for a few days to protect hockey violence.
In October 1978, Hull announced his retirement, but he rejoined Winnipeg a year later and made his return to NHL action in a Nov. 2 tie with the Capitals.
Shunned by Winnipeg General Manager John Ferguson and Coach Tom McVie following a minor shoulder injury, Hull worked out with an ice-rink manager to stay in shape and finally joined Hartford late in February, officially traded by the Jets for "future considerations." He is wearing the No. 16 of his early Chicago days, out of deference to Howe's prior claim to No. 9.
"My primary concern is helping the Whalers this season," Hull said after Thursday's game in Buffalo. "I will reassess my contract after this season as to my future in Hartford."
This will be Rowe's first game in Capital Centre since he was traded to Hartford for Alan Hangsleben. Rowe left with kind words for the Capitals' management, but barbs for the media, which he claimed had "always been too negative."