SUN Hockey Pool

Mr. Hockey's heavy heart

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

Sitting in a quiet corner of a downtown Calgary conference room, Mr. Hockey fights back the tears.

Speaking passionately about old friends like Bernie Geoffrion, Red Storey and Maurice Richard, the voice of one of the toughest players ever to play the game trails off as emotion wins over the moment.

"My wife...," starts Howe, dabbing his left eye as he struggles to regain his composure, "is making me soft."

After leaning on his bride of 52 years for endless strength and guidance, Howe now finds himself virtually without his most trusted winger.

Several years into a battle with dementia brought on by Pick's Disease, Colleen Howe can no longer travel with her husband as she did while managing his hectic speaking schedule. Instead, while Howe flew to Calgary to share his stories with 1,100 supporters of Edge School last night, she lay in their Detroit home with caregivers by her side.

"It's eating her up," says the 77-year-old hockey legend of his wife's brain disease.

"She can't talk anymore. She doesn't say a word to me. She can't walk. It's devastating."

And so, the man from Floral, Sask., who has dedicated his life to promoting the game he dominated for parts of five decades, soldiers on with day trips that enable him to return to her side the next morning.

Sporting his Hall of Fame blazer and a Stanley Cup ring his pal and former coach Tommy Ivan bought as a replacement for him, Howe hobbled into Calgary yesterday with a heavy heart.

The loss of colourful referee Red Storey only made it worse.

"When I'd get a penalty I never got mad at him," says Howe, one of the most physical players of his day. "Let's face it, 98 percent of the time it's your fault. You get away with a lot more than you get caught with.

"He was a good friend because of his sense of humour and I think he held control of the anger in the game through his conversations with the players."

The loss of age-old rival Boom Boom Geoffrion Saturday hit him just as hard, especially since he had visited his ailing friend in Atlanta before his passing.

"He was funny on the ice -- when I had to take him out I'd yell, 'look out,' " recalls Howe.

"I'd still take him out but the sticks would stay down and nobody would get hurt."

For many others, such warnings "came after I hit them," he laughs.

Talk of the game still serves as a remedy of sorts for a man who openly admits his wife's deterioration has meant he's "never had so many worries in my life."

Famous for picking up 15 goals and 41 points with Hartford at age 52, it's no surprise the man whose had two knee replacements skated as recently as last year.

"It was a charity game," shrugs Howe, a grandfather of nine, never one to turn down a fundraiser.

"If I have a grandson outside playing and he's doing something that bugs me, I'll go out there on the ice and show 'em how."

Fondly recalling his first meeting with a young Wayne Gretzky who begged for answers to questions about the game, Howe has long been big on the lessons passed down from great players.

"I learned a great thing from Sid Abel when he said, 'You've got two eyes and one mouth -- keep one shut and two open and you'll learn a lot of tricks,' " says the four-time Stanley Cup winner with a smile.

"The best advice I ever heard from him was to just keep quiet."

Sadly, that's all his wife is capable of these days. And the only thing Mr. Hockey can do about it is cry.


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