Mr. Hockey back in the game

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:16 PM ET

LONDON -- Gordie Howe talks about the day like it was yesterday.

"I still play a little bit," Howe said. "This team, the Vipers, wanted me to go on the ice for a shift. I wound up playing more than a shift. But I couldn't turn left. It was funny because the guy deked me and went to the left and I turned right, right into the sucker. I wasn't going to get hurt so I laid my lumber on him. I figure, why change now?"

Indeed.

The game Howe was talking about was played eight years ago when the Detroit Vipers of the IHL signed Howe, 70 at the time, to a one-game contract. It shouldn't surprise anyone that one of the greatest hockey players to ever put on skates can't and won't change the way he plays.

But things have changed for the Detroit Red Wings great. They've changed a great deal, from his personal life to his health to his business life.

The good news is that after a difficult time, they appear to be changing for the better.

"There were some awful times," Howe said this week from his home outside Detroit. "I always thought I was a tough son of a bitch, but I'm on these pills for my heart.You never think you're getting old ..."

Howe is 78 years old. He holds the record for most games played in the NHL. He's second in goals and third in total points.

He has had both knees replaced. He can't move his once powerful wrists because of arthritis. Five years ago, an irregular heartbeat forced a stent to be installed. He tells dozens of stories but readily admits he often can't remember how long ago they happened. He is distressed he has trouble remembering faces and names.

The greatest challenge he faces is one that is out of his control.

His life-long love, his wife Colleen, the woman who was the driving force behind Howe, the Howe family and the business, the woman of great strength who battled hockey owners so that Gordie could be paid according to his worth, is in the late stages of Pick's Disease. It's a rare brain illness that causes dementia.

Colleen needs 24-hour care. Caregivers feed her, bathe her and give her medication. She doesn't recognize anyone.

Gordie was beyond devastated. Yet with help from his family and a more active life, he's recovering.

"I've seen a big change in him over the last year," said grandson Travis, son of Mark. "When my grandmother was diagnosed, he aged overnight. He completely slowed down. Once she was diagnosed, he became a grandfather, an older guy.

"He didn't know how to take care of himself when it happened. For example, my granddad would go out to Taco Bell every single day to eat breakfast, dinner. He wasn't shopping for groceries. With the caregivers there, it's helpful.

"Now he's enjoying himself. He's more himself. The restrictions are gone."

Travis is working with Gordie and Mark to rebuild the business of the Howe brand, a business Colleen oversaw under the name Power Play International. Since Colleen's illness, the Howe family has had a falling out with two individuals who worked in the company. The employees left under a cloud of controversy and bitterness that still exists. Mark Howe has spent months rebuilding the business and, along with Travis, now handles Gordie's appearances.

Meanwhile, Gordie still struggles as he copes with Colleen's illness.

"She's not really with us, where she's coherent and speaking," Travis said. "But if you know my grandfather and you see him at home, it's a good thing she's still there. It gives him the feeling that he's still taking care of her in a way."

"I'm better. I'm better. I just can't believe she went so quickly," Gordie said. "She took care of everything. I took the doctors' advice. I realize this is something even the doctors can't do anything about. The doctor said, 'if you don't relax, you're going to go with her.'

"They tell me she doesn't recognize anything but if you say something, and it doesn't happen too often, but if you say something that rings a bell with her, she laughs, especially at the kids. She went awful fast, holy cow.

"It's hard at times like this, at Christmas, because I don't know what to do. I was always thinking she would do this. We're going out later with Mark to go through the stores and come up with something."

Through all of this, Howe remains a class act and wants nothing more than to remain in touch with the game and the fans who still flock to see him.

"That has been my life," Howe said. "I try to be respectful to the game of hockey and its followers. That's because some wise old man told me if someone is interested enough in you to ask for your autograph, you should be interested enough to sign it.

"I remember years ago at the (Detroit) Olympia, after the game they had rails for people to stand behind for autographs. I used to put two chocolate bars in my pocket and eat them after the game to give me a little boost because of the long lines. The staff would often open the door so cold air would come in to get rid of us because we would just stay and sign autographs."

Travis Howe considers the changes to be healthy for his grandfather.

"He's great (at public speaking) and meeting people,' Travis said. "That was one thing that bothered me with his old business manager. Everything was strictly dollars. If he did a memorabilia signing, it was always push the next guy through the line and get them out of the way. My grandfather's appeal has always been that he's personable with people and he enjoys it. We went to a Red Wings game and did a signing on the concourse. He did (225) people and spent three or four minutes with each of them, almost too long. That's what people enjoy. Otherwise, you might as well order something signed off the website. What's the difference?"

Gordie, meanwhile, just enjoys talking hockey. The stories come one after the other, blending together through the decades, famous names flowing like a list from a hockey encyclopedia -- Sudden Death Mel Hill, Harry Watson, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsey ...

"I went to Montreal to play the Canadiens and there were 300 people outside after the game. The police asked me if I wanted an escort 'because a lot of people think you don't like Rocket (Richard.)' I told them, 'I don't like him on the ice but I like him as a man. I play golf with him,' " Howe said.

What about the escort?

"I told them I'd just go out with my stick. When I left the building, they just wanted my autograph."

Howe has a dog. He named it Rocket.

Howe was always underpaid, something Colleen tried to rectify. He never did make as much money as he deserved.

"When I got to Detroit I weighed 203 pounds," Howe said.

"I remember Jack Adams checking everyone out and asking them their weight. I lied. When he asked me, I said 208. He said, 'I want you to lose three or four pounds or it's going to cost you $200.' I was making $5,000 at the time. I came in eating ice cream a couple of days later, I thought they were going to shove it down by throat. They weighed me and I weighed 203. Adams said, 'stay at that weight, you never looked better.' "

Last Friday, the Detroit Red Wings and their owner, Mike Ilitch, named an entrance at Joe Louis Arena the Gordie Howe Entrance.

"I said to Mr. Ilitch, 'before I go out there, I just want to make sure that it isn't an exit," Howe said.

"I feel good now. The only thing I regret is the names. I don't remember the names like I used to. I don't want to go anywhere for awhile."


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