There were times when he’d load his sons in the back of his car and drive them to the Old Red Barn. It was always morning, when there was no one else there. He’d strap on his skates and put his sons on his shoulders and step out onto the ice. Then he’d skate fast, doing laps around the boards, creating his own breeze and letting it rush into their eyes. That’s how he introduced them to his world.
It was May 12, 1973, and a 45-year-old Gordie Howe was in the stands of the Montreal Forum, two years into his retirement and already feeling somewhat forgotten. He’d gone grey years earlier, and though he’d never really slowed he was now getting fat around the waist and feeling more useless than ever before. He was in that awkward stage of life when you still feel young even though the world and the mirror tell you you’re getting on.
He’d spent the better part of his retirement fishing and golfing on the outskirts of Detroit, and wandering in and out of the Red Wings front office, looking for purpose and growing increasingly dejected. His former overlords seemed to want him to live out his days as little more than an aging figurehead. He’d scored 1,809 points for them, won four Stanley Cups and retired as hockey’s most formidable warrior, but he’d never truly felt respected by the powers that be in Detroit, and now he was feeling like nothing but a dusty old relic, something the Wings management could haul out onto the public stage whenever they chose and then just push back into storage.
He was frustrated and angry. His greatest joy: the days when he’d go north of the border to watch his teenage sons—Mark and Marty—who were launching their own careers in the OHL with the Toronto Marlboros. The Marlboros were the best team in the league, and the Howe boys two of the team’s shiniest prospects. They’d learned to play the game from their father, first on the rink he’d built next to their house and then in Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, the “Old Red Barn,” where he’d host impromptu practices with them, running drills up and down the ice and enticing them to shoot pucks on Terry Sawchuk. They’d watched their old man from the stands for years, admiring his every move—not just because he was the greatest player in the game but because he was their dad.
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Now he was the one in the stands, watching as WHA and NHL scouts lined up to assess whether the Howes of the future were anywhere near as good as the one from days passed. As Gordie sat there watching his sons skate up and down the Forum’s ice he wondered whether he’d retired too soon. Whether he could have held on just a few more years and maybe gotten the chance to play either against or with his boys in an NHL game. It was a dream he’d harboured since his last year with the Wings, when he’d suited up with his sons for a charity game and thought to himself: “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if this was for real.”
But then one thing had led to another and he’d retired, not because he could no longer play the game, but because he was 43, already 20 years older than the men he was routinely elbowing in the face, and there were people in his life telling him it was probably time he hung ’em up. And so now he was just an aging hockey dad living vicariously through his sons, clapping along with the others as his boys hoisted the Memorial Cup above their heads.
Little did he know that in those same stands his wife, Colleen, was talking with the visiting coach of the WHA’s Houston Aeros, “planting the seeds,” as she’d later say, for a deal that would see her sons become the youngest prospects ever drafted into the WHA. Mark and Marty were 17 and 18 years old respectively, too young to qualify for the NHL draft, but both prime candidates to make the jump to the upstart WHA. Mark’s name was the first to be called by the Aeros, a team he had only heard of two months earlier. Marty’s came next and before long members of the Aeros management were flying up to Bear Lake, Mich., to the Howe family cottage, inquiring as to whether they might entice three Howes to head to Texas and help sell the game to the American South. “It was a dream come true,” Gordie would later recall.
The Aeros gave Gordie the biggest contract of his life—$1 million over four years—but the money didn’t matter. It was the prospect of playing with his sons and of feeling useful again that got him to agree to leave the city where he’d made his name and head south to a place that never saw snow. No one ever bothered to ask whether, at 45, he’d still be able to play.
There were moments during that first training camp in Houston when Mark and Marty would be out on the rink, passing pucks back and forth, and they’d look down the ice and see their father huffing and puffing in the corner, his face a deep shade of purple. It was only then they’d wonder if maybe he’d grown too old for this game, or if he should have stayed back in Detroit and left them to strike out on their own. But they knew well enough not to ask him if he was OK. Once he was on that ice he was no longer their father—he was just another man looking for the puck.
It was late summer, 1973, and though the season hadn’t begun, Gordie was struggling to prove his worth to his new team. He’d just signed one of the biggest deals in hockey history and had undergone wrist surgery to help him get back into the game, but he was out of shape and unable to keep up with his sons and the rest of his team. He’d never been much of a runner—he could barely run five kilometres, even in his prime—but now he was waking up at dawn, lacing up his trainers and racing around the streets of Houston, doing everything he could to shed the 20 lb. he’d managed to gain in his retirement. His struggles persisted right up to the eve of the season opener, when doctors put him into traction after back spasms left him nearly incapacitated. And yet, by opening night, he was back on skates, stepping through the boards of the Sam Houston Coliseum between his sons, hoisting his stick into the air and saluting the crowd in his new home.
Eleven years older than any other player on the team, Gordie immediately got to work for the fledgling franchise. Playing on a line alongside Mark, he soon led the team in points, routinely feeding pucks across the ice toward his son and watching as he deked past goaltender after goaltender. By season’s end, the Aeros were division champions. Mark was named rookie of the year while his dad took home the Gary L. Davidson Award as league MVP (the next year the WHA renamed it the Gordie Howe Award).
That off-season, a then 46-year-old Gordie joined Mark, Bobby Hull and other WHA all-stars for an eight-game rematch of the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. The series was a disaster for Canada (the team winning just one of the eight games), but not for Gordie, who tallied seven points and gave the Russians cause to skate around timidly while he was on the ice. His most memorable moment in the series came after a Russian player slashed Mark in the ear. Recalling the incident three decades later, Gordie told a reporter how he’d extracted revenge by dumping the puck into the corner, letting the Russian who’d slashed his son chase after it, and then going in after him and breaking his arm.
The next year, Gordie led the Aeros to the WHA final, sweeping the Chicago Cougars in four games and winning the Avco World Trophy (the WHA’s version of the Stanley Cup). It was, as he later said, “the most fun I ever had in hockey.”
Away from the ice, life was equally rewarding. The Howe boys purchased three houses in a row and became local celebrities in a town that soon admired them more than the game they played. “It was a great family thing,” says Mark. “I just really appreciated watching and being able to be a part of what he did.”
But the beautiful dream of playing together in Houston and never growing old couldn’t last forever. After four seasons and two championships, the Aeros were on the brink of financial collapse and the Howes were on the move. Mark had been drafted 25th overall by the Boston Bruins in the 1974 draft while Marty had been selected 51st, yet neither had ever played in an NHL game. In the summer of 1977 both were offered contracts with the Bruins. But the team wasn’t as interested in the 49-year-old Gordie, even though he had scored 68 points in his last season with the Aeros.
After brief discussions with the Red Wings that would have seen all three Howes head back to Detroit, Marty began talking to the WHA’s New England Whalers, a small-market franchise with three open lockers in its dressing room. “I wanted Gordie to play again,” remembers Marty of that summer when he and Mark helped keep their father in the game. “I talked Mark into going to Hartford for a 10-year contract that would keep us together.”
And so it was that the only father-sons combo in professional sports moved to Connecticut to join the Whalers. To Gordie, it was just a matter of transplanting his dream of playing with his sons from one city to another. But recreating their previous successes as a trio proved impossible. While Mark and Gordie led the team in points in 1977–78, Marty’s play soon came under scrutiny. And with the Whalers on the cusp of entering the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1979, he found himself relegated to the AHL.
It’s unclear who took the demotion harder, Marty or his father. “That’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve really reacted. I really lost my cool,” Gordie later recalled. He walked into his coach’s office and said: “If something happens to Marty, or Mark, or myself, and we don’t get a chance to play together in the NHL, I can’t promise what I’ll do.”
He was so upset he even knocked a few things off his coach’s desk. “I could have nailed him right there,” Gordie remembered.
Marty would toil in the AHL for most of the 1979–80 season, playing just six games with the Whalers in their inaugural NHL campaign. But he stuck with the team into the playoffs where, in the second game of a matchup with the Montreal Canadiens, Gordie passed the puck back to him and then ran over the goalie, leaving the net open for his son to score. “That was my first NHL goal,” Marty says.
Gordie scored one for himself that night as well, the last goal of his storied career. It brought the 15,242 Habs fans packed into the Forum to their feet.
He retired from the game two days later. Then he ducked back into the stands to watch as his boys carried on without him.