The toughest fight of Gordie Howe’s life

Photograph: Markian Lozowchuk
December 17, 2013, 12:56 PM

As we count down the greatest Maple Leafs of all time ahead of the Winter Classic, we’d be remiss if we neglected the greatest Red Wing ever. To that end, we present Dan Robson’s story on Mr. Hockey that originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2012 issue of Sportsnet magazine

HE WALKED SLOWLY TO THE FRONT OF A ROOM PACKED WITH REPORTERS and sat on the last seat in the first row, facing the podium. He had hoped they wouldn’t notice, or, at least, that they wouldn’t react. This day, after all, was never supposed to be about him. But in the vaulted sanctuary of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, his presence is something akin to the manifestation of a deity. His white hair was cropped neatly and parted. His face was soft, but dignified. His white dress shirt was crisp, buttoned down over a black and gold tie. The navy blazer fit perfectly. The Hall of Fame logo sat just right. Even veteran sports scribes were in awe. “Gordie Howe,” whispered one, sitting in the fourth row. “There’s Gordie Howe,” nudged another, somewhere in the back. They glowed like giddy schoolboys.

Gordie Howe might have heard their whispers. He hears them everywhere he goes. But he didn’t turn and wave like he usually does. He just looked forward, to the stage where the Stanley Cup sat and where, in moments, his son would be introduced as one of the new inductees into hockey’s holy Hall.

After a brief media conference, reporters were set loose to scrum the newest legends of the game—Mark Howe, along with Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Ed Belfour. One reporter moved toward Gordie. Then another, and another—and soon there was a pack. Marty Howe tucked in next to his dad, guiding the conversation. His sister, Cathy, sat behind them, listening closely. Their younger brother Murray stood at the back of the room, while Gordie’s best friend Felix Gatt—a lifelong fan who became his confidant—wandered wide-eyed through the Hall.

Questions directed at Mark are almost always a variation of the same: What is it like to follow your father’s legacy? “Part of being Gordie Howe’s son is you’re always in the backdrop,” he said. “I think my brothers and myself have always conducted ourselves accordingly, and we’ve accepted that. But I’m being put out in the forefront now. There are so many people that had so much to do with me receiving this honour. It’s not about me, it’s about all of us.”

That was the point, made again and again. It’s about a family, a famous name—forged by a boy from Saskatoon who became the greatest hockey player in history. And by the woman who made sure it happened. On the happiest of days, the Howes talked a lot about who wasn’t there. It has been nearly three years since Colleen Howe died. “It would have been really great if she had been here,” said Marty. “She was the one behind everything.” Mark echoed his brother: “My mother,” he said. “I will never, ever lose my mother.” And Cathy looked over at her dad, who was throwing mock elbows at the mob of reporters. “He’s been devastated,” she said. “It’s been a long road for him.”

It’s one that has taken him on a relentless journey across the continent, living in the care of his scattered family while regularly meeting with fans who still adore him. But between the autographs and handshakes, Mr. Hockey, showing the early signs of dementia, knows that the final period is slipping slowly away. And despite the beating he endured on the ice, these are the toughest days, because he faces them without her.

In the Hall of Fame, Gordie stood and answered every question with a quip, a wink and a grin. Then he was asked if this, of all moments, was his proudest. “I would say it’s a second of mine,” he replied softly, the answer immediate and sure. “The first one was marrying Colleen. That’s what started it all.”

COLLEEN JOFFA WAS BOWLING WITH A GROUP of friends at the Lucky Strike down the street from the Detroit Olympia on a spring night in 1951. The 18-year-old blonde wore blue jeans that hugged her perfectly. Colleen, who grew up on a farm in Sandusky, Mich., knew little about hockey. So she didn’t recognize the group of young men sitting nearby as the city’s famed Red Wings, who were regulars. Gordie, 23, was five years into his NHL career. His name was already carved into the Stanley Cup. And yet, despite being a star, it took him weeks to work up the courage to talk to her.

Soon after he did, however, Gordie and Colleen were spending hours on the phone every night. He took her on dates with other Red Wings, including Ted Lindsay and Red Kelly, and their girlfriends. Colleen was surprised by Gordie’s charming shyness, rare for someone so famous. He knew “immediately” that he had to marry her. A few weeks after they first met, he went away on a fishing trip. He’d never claimed to be a poet—in fact, he skipped almost all of his high-school classes when Detroit sent him to its junior program in Galt, Ont., as a teenager. But the Red Wing transformed into a bard: “I’ve found that you can miss someone even though you’ve known them but for a few days,” he wrote in the first of several letters he sent her during that short trip to Florida. “Love and stuff, Gordon.”

They married in 1953.

GORDIE SITS AT THE KITCHEN TABLE in his son Murray’s home in Sylvania, Ohio, next to a 500-piece puzzle of a bridge that he’s working on. A teacup poodle sits in his lap. The tiny grey dog is named Rocket—”After Maurice Richard,” says Murray, a 51-year-old radiologist with brown hair and a youthful face. “My dad’s last bodycheck on the Rocket was to name a little dog after him.” The tag around Rocket’s neck is etched with Colleen Howe’s name and a phone number to a house filled with memories, now collecting dust in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Gordie pulls the wallet from the back pocket of his light green slacks. He lays out a small stack on the table. Along with two signed hockey cards of Marty and Mark from their days with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, there is a black and white photograph of Colleen leaning against a railing in a cream bathing suit with black trim. Her pigtails rest on her bare shoulders, and she smiles warmly, as palm trees arch behind her. “Colleen 1951″ is written neatly on the back, above a faded stamp mark that reads “Miami Beach, Florida.”

“She was beautiful,” Howe says. Rocket sleeps on his lap, nuzzled into his dark green sweater. “If I missed that chance, I would have missed it all.”

There’s an Upper Deck card titled “Mr. Hockey’s Memorable Moments.” It has a photo of Gordie in a black bathing suit, with a barrel-chest and a full head of brown hair. His arm is around Colleen—wearing a white bathing suit, with wind-blown curls—standing on the stairs of a pool, on their honeymoon. “Mr. and Mrs. Hockey are recognized as the sport’s greatest couple,” reads the caption along the side. “Didn’t she get lucky?” Gordie says with a laughing huff. The card is signed by Gordie in blue ink. “He’s conditioned to sign any photo when he sees it,” Murray says. “He likes to have them pre-signed so he can spend more time talking to people.”

The last photo is of Gordie and Colleen posing on a leather chair. They are middle-aged. He’s wearing a grey, plaid-pattern suit, with a thick black tie and short white hair. Colleen is dressed in a cream blazer and black skirt. Her hair is in a short bob that curls at the edge of her smile, which hadn’t changed since 1951.

In the space between the photos in his wallet, Gordie became the greatest hockey player the game had ever known. He led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups. He won both the Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer and the Hart trophy as the league’s MVP six times. To this day, he holds the record for most NHL games played–1,767 in 26 NHL seasons. When he retired in 1980, he was the league’s all-time leading point scorer with 1,850. Meanwhile, Colleen created a legacy of her own. She infamously clashed with the Red Wings’ hard-nosed coach and general manager Jack Adams, who viewed his players’ wives and girlfriends as distractions. Colleen made every decision off the ice. She trademarked the names “Mr. and Mrs. Hockey” and managed the family’s business interests. When Gordie first retired after 25 seasons with the Wings, she orchestrated a contract for her husband and their sons Marty and Mark to play together with the Aeros in the WHA. When Muhammad Ali met the couple, he nicknamed Colleen the ‘Boss.’

Edna Gadsby, wife of Gordie’s teammate Bill Gadsby and longtime friend of Colleen, says, “When Colleen married him, she realized that in many ways he was taken advantage of. She didn’t like that. She wasn’t afraid to do something about it. Her only critics were the ones who knew she was doing something good, and because she was a woman and because she was the wife of the star, she was often criticized.”

And as Gordie elbowed his way into the record books, Colleen also took care of things at home. “Mom ran the household,” Mark says. “There was no question about it.”

Cathy was about 16 years old when the family moved to Houston. She remembers bringing a date to an Aeros game. After a brawl on the ice, a fan poured his beer on Mark as he left the game. Colleen, sitting nearby, whacked him over the head with her purse, knocking him out cold. As security dragged him away, Colleen shouted: “Don’t you ever throw beer on my son again!” Cathy, now a 52-year-old mother of two, with a grandchild of her own, laughs at the memory: “I don’t think I heard from my date again.”

Colleen had a difficult relationship with her own mother, who had her with a travelling musician, and was married four times. She was raised mostly by her aunt, who instilled in her a strong desire to fight for justice and a commitment to family, says Murray. Colleen passed that on to her own kids. “Your family is really your legacy, and they should be coveted,” Colleen once wrote. “A family legacy is so important, more important than a hockey legacy.”

A painting of Colleen, with grey hair, hangs in the hallway of Murray’s house, next to the bedroom where Gordie keeps his suitcase. The three books she wrote about the family’s life in hockey are piled in the family room, on top of several other books about Gordie’s time with the Red Wings. In 2002, when she was diagnosed with Pick’s disease, which has effects similar to Alzheimer’s, she was given Rocket. The dog was a comfort for her as the disease took its toll on her ability to communicate and recognize family. Colleen carried Rocket everywhere she went. He slept next to her at night. She would spoon-feed him at the kitchen table.

Through those years, Gordie insisted on taking care of his wife. “She was there for me when I needed her. And I’m going to be there for her,” he once told Gatt.

A few years after Colleen was diagnosed, the Howe family visited Ottawa for an event. As they walked along the Rideau Canal together, Gordie decided to rent some skates. He held Colleen’s hand and they made their way down the long, frozen path together. Other skaters stopped and stared, snapping photos. “They didn’t even notice,” Cathy remembers of her parent’s last skate. “That’s just what they were like.”

As the effects of Pick’s worsened, caregivers were hired to visit the house. Gordie refused to see Colleen put in a long-term care facility. Of the battles he’d waged, this was the worst. He hated leaving home. He didn’t want to miss a moment—a smile, a laugh—fleeting as they were. “Even when she got to the point where she couldn’t interact, it was just such a big comfort for him just to have her around,” says Murray. Gordie was the only person she consistently recognized until the end. “When she heard his voice or saw his face, she would instantly respond,” says Murray. Gordie would poke her with his elbow, or sneak behind and tug on her ears. He’d always get the laugh he was looking for.

In February 2009, the family gathered at Gordie and Colleen’s place to celebrate her 76th birthday. They sang to her and shared her favourite chocolate cake. She ate an enormous piece, expressing delight with an enthusiastic “Mmmmm.” As a doctor, Murray helped care for his mother throughout her illness and he recognized that she was getting ready to let go. “She lived a great life. She lived a full life. And she was done,” he says. After the cake, Colleen stopped eating entirely. Two weeks later, the phone rang at Gatt’s home. It was Gordie. He usually started their chats with a jovial mock. This call was different. “Colleen just passed away,” Gordie said.

Gatt arrived at the Howe home before Colleen’s body was taken away. Gordie went into the bedroom and said goodbye to Mrs. Hockey, his pillar for six decades. Then, he and Gatt took a long walk and cried. “It was heartbreaking,” Gatt says. “She was a very brilliant woman. As long as she was there, he was happy.”

Following her death, Gordie tried to live alone. He lasted a couple of days. But he’d call his kids, breaking down. “It’s the loss of the love of your life. I wouldn’t call it a depression per se, it’s just grieving, pure grieving,” says Murray. “If you don’t have somebody there to help you through that grieving process, you just fall off the cliff.”

Faced with Gordie’s anguish, his four children decided to have their dad live with each of them, moving him from house to house for a couple weeks at a time. He’ll spend weeks with Marty in Hartford, who acts as his agent and business manager. Marty books his dad for events across North America—charity functions and golf tournaments. In between, Gordie spends time with Mark, who travels as a scout for the Red Wings. In the summers they go deep-sea fishing off the Jersey Shore, spending nights drifting on the ocean, waking to the squeal of a reel spinning with giant fish.

And he travels to Ohio, where Murray arranges his medical checkups—a trip to the dentist to fix his bottom row of false teeth, or to the hospital to get steroid injections in his wrists to bring down the swelling. In part, so that one day he might be able to play golf again. During the winter, Gordie heads to Texas, where Cathy and her family live.

Sitting in the family room, next to the stack of books Colleen wrote, Gordie looks down at Rocket, stroking the dog’s curly fur. “Lonely life lately,” he says quietly. Murray looks at his dad with a soft frown, and fills a long silence. “It’s tough,” he says. “You lose your partner of 56 years–that was definitely the biggest check he ever took. But he’s fortunate that people love him.”

HE GRIPS THE ACOUSTIC GUITAR CAUTIOUSLY, moving his fingers slowly along the strings like a young boy practising a chord. He fumbles through the notes, trying to remember the course of things. The twanging tune arrives–his giant, mangled hands rolling nimbly over the strings. The song is “Red River Valley”–an old prairie folk song his father taught him. The notes come quickly, tumbling forward. He doesn’t sing the words, though he knows them well: “From this valley they say you are going. We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile. For you take with you all of the sunshine that has brightened our pathway awhile.

Gordie sings and hums constantly. In the back of the car, sitting at the kitchen table working on a puzzle, in the living room while fiddling with his grandson’s guitar. They are always songs from his youth–notes that carry him back through eight decades, to the humble home he grew up in, with eight brothers and sisters. Those days are still vivid. He remembers frozen days skating across the Saskatoon sloughs. And the year three boys drowned playing on thin ice. He remembers shooting at tin cans on the rink in the schoolyard—when Mel ‘Sudden Death’ Hill, a local NHL star, stopped to show him how to get more power in his shot.

Murray’s basement is lined with iconic photos from his father’s career. They are interspersed with pictures of Murray’s own four children, playing soccer, tennis, dancing and singing. There are images of Gordie’s days playing with Mark and Marty in Houston—in one, Marty leans his head on his father’s shoulder on the bench, as the clock ticks down on their first championship with the Aeros in 1974. There’s a poster of Gordie in the prime of his youth, lying in a hospital bed with a bandage wrapped around his head and over his right eye. Fan mail is piled on top of him—letters sent after Gordie went head first into the boards in 1950, and doctors were unsure if he’d live, let alone play hockey again. The word “Courage” is written underneath.

Today, because of his ongoing struggle with short-term memory, it’s difficult for him to keep track of his own schedule. Gordie doesn’t usually know what he will be doing during the day until he wakes up. “It’s slowly going away,” Gordie says of his memory. Sometimes he wakes up wondering, “Where the hell am I?”

Marty regularly sends out a schedule to the rest of the family letting them know where their dad’s next appearances are and what flights he needs to take. “Speaking of which, what are we doing tomorrow?” Gordie asks his son, sitting next to him at the kitchen table. “Um, nothing tomorrow,” Murray replies. “Nice and relaxing.”

“Ya-ba-daba-do,” says Gordie, in a Fred Flintstone voice.

It’s remarkable that his short-term memory lasted this long, considering the beating his body took during 32 years as a marked man in the helmet-less era of pro hockey, says Murray. He’s still fantastic at math and spends hours each day working through puzzles. “It’s incredible,” says Murray. “Most people would be dead today if they took the punishment he did.”

A LIGHT BROWN NORTHLAND HOCKEY STICK leans in the corner of the stairway at the edge of the kitchen. It has “G. Howe” stamped at the top of the shaft, with a perfectly straight blade. The replica is one of many donated to charities and fundraisers after hockey’s ambidextrous legend scribbles his signature on it. A Gordie Howe signature isn’t a rare collector’s item. He writes it constantly—something he practised as a boy, asking his sister to decide which version she liked best.

More than almost any other athlete, Gordie cherishes his responsibility to fans. As a star with the Red Wings, he helped supplement his income of about $30,000 a year by travelling on a summer tour to Eaton’s department stores across Canada. He’d often arrive in two or three cities a day, chatting and laughing with fans for hours. Every night, Howe returned to his hotel room and signed between 1,000 to 2,000 greeting cards and photos to give to fans the next day.

Once, after a game, Terry Sawchuk refused to sign an autograph for an eager young fan who needed the goalie’s signature to complete his collection of the entire Red Wings squad. Sawchuk cursed at the young boy, telling him to go away. Howe, in equally unprintable language, threatened to tear his goalie a new five-hole if he didn’t give the boy his autograph. “He was a paying customer,” Gordie says.

That boy was Felix Gatt, who now has a basement filled with memorabilia that rivals the Hockey Hall of Fame. He and Gordie became close friends about two decades ago. Gatt, who looks like a small version of Gordie, started attending events for fans with him when Colleen became sick. When Gatt had a stroke a few years ago, he woke up in a hospital bed to find Gordie sitting next to him. He came every day that Gatt was there, with doctors and nurses stopping in to hear the legend’s stories. “The whole damn hospital was in my room,” Gatt says. “Gordie is a people person.”

After Colleen died, the family tried to cut back on their father’s appearances, thinking that all the attention might be too much for him to handle. But without the opportunity to joke and laugh with fans, Gordie began to fade. “When he’s not active and interacting with fans his mind gets stagnant,” Mark says. “He needs to be around people. That’s where he thrives.”

Today, the constant Mr. Hockey cycle is designed to keep him healthy and alert. Gordie’s on a plane several times a month, criss-crossing the continent. The signings, the fishing trips, the charity events—each allows him to re-live the moments when he was happiest.

He’ll sit for an afternoon and laugh about the elbows he threw. Or the time he beat Arnold Palmer at golf. Or when Joe DiMaggio taught him to open up his stance in the batter’s box. He’ll take off his Stanley Cup ring and slip it on a stranger’s finger. “Now you can say you wore one.”

And if you have time, he’ll show you his war wounds. The scars on his knees, which click with a push. The point of bone that juts from his elbow. The teeth he lost (many less than the teeth he took). His shifted, swollen knuckles and the hand that won’t stop twitching. He’ll put your hand on the soft spots on his skull, under the white hair, where a surgeon’s drill once saved his life from a brain hemorrhage. And he’ll tell you about the deeper wounds. About his “lonely life lately” and how “horseshit” it is to lose a wife.

WHEN GORDIE IS IN TOWN, HE RARELY LEAVES Murray, or his wife—also named Colleen. When he’s not going to the grocery store with Colleen, or helping her with a charity food drive, Gordie makes himself busy around the house. In the fall, he wakes up early and rakes the leaves. Come winter, he grabs a shovel and clears the driveway whenever it snows—pushing with his mangled wrists and aching knees. When he’s done, he moves on to the next house. He does the dishes. When the dishes are done, he works on a puzzle.

At night, he hangs out with the family, sitting around the kitchen table playing Loaded Questions, a Howe favourite, or singing along as they lounge around strumming tunes on the guitar. (Gordie Howe, Jr., his 22-year-old grandson, is in a nationally acclaimed barbershop quartet.)

And almost every day, Gordie and Murray go for a long walk. In the summer, they trek through a nearby golf course, collecting balls and handing their bounty to golfers, who are often starstruck by the sudden appearance of the Red Wings legend.

On this day in early December, father and son walk through a hilly park. The ground is cold and hard, with pockets of snow. Gordie tucks Rocket in his arms. It’s a three-hour hike–a lot for an 83-year-old man–but Mr. Hockey keeps going.

Along the way, they talk about hockey—about how of all the legends he played with, Gordie felt most natural skating next to Mark and Marty. And after walking in silence for a while, they talk about life and death and endings. About God and heaven. About where Colleen is now, and whether he might see her again one day. “Sometimes you have to fall to your knees before you look up,” Murray says. “That’s the way it’s been for him. He’s lived a sort of Cinderella life. The challenges in the last couple years have forced him to think about why we’re here, and where we’re going.”

As they stroll along, Murray asks his dad: “If you die before I do, what would you like me to say in your eulogy?” There’s a brief pause. “Finally,” Gordie replies, “the third period is finally over.” Father and son share a laugh. “I hope,” says Gordie, “they have a good hockey team in heaven.

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