After a series of strokes in 2014 made it hard for Gordie Howe to walk or talk, he went through a treatment last December that dramatically improved his health. He received an injection of stem cells into his spine, but had to travel to Mexico because the procedure had not been done in the United States or Canada. Now, according to his sons Mark and Marty, the legendary Mr. Hockey is doing much better and most of the Howe family will get to celebrate Thanksgiving together this weekend.
I caught up with Mark and Marty, who were in New York City for their appearance on the NHL float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to ask about how their dad is doing and what they think of the current state of the NHL game.
Sarah Barshop: How is your dad right now?
Mark Howe (right, in photo above): He’s honestly doing pretty well. Marty was there three weeks ago. He spent a week with dad. And I talk to him all the time, I do FaceTime with him.
Marty Howe (left): He’s in Ohio now with my brother Murray [who] re-did his entire downstairs bedroom and put a totally handicapped bathroom and everything in the house, so it makes it much more convenient for him. Plus he’s a doctor, and with one phone call, he can get [Gordie] in the hospital in 30 minutes. So that makes a difference.
SB: What do you guys do when you’re there with him?
Mark: He knows what’s going on, but his speech is not that great, so you kind of have to dictate things. Normally what I do is, because I have three granddaughters, I always have new pictures on my computer. Dad loves that, and because his memory is not good from his dementia, I’ll bring a bunch of old pictures we have and he just loves seeing [them].
Just being [able to be] there and getting to interact with him. That’s the difficult part. I went through the same thing with my mom when she was real ill the last three, four years. It’s difficult to do much on the phone. You need to be there to interact. And when you do, it’s kind of a calming, relaxing feeling. That’s the best thing about it.
SB: It’s nice that you get to spend time together now, because for most of your life, at least some part of the family has been away playing hockey on the holidays. What was it like around Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Howe household?
Mark: Holidays for NHL players back in the day were not so hot because the Red Wings used to play on Christmas Day. I remember one Christmas, the trainer for the Red Wings got sick, so I happily volunteered to travel with the team and go to Pittsburgh. It was the first time I saw the old Igloo. That’s kind of what Thanksgivings and Christmases were like.
But I think in our line of work, what you learn to do is, instead of just looking forward to holidays to celebrate, you [plan for] the days you have off. My younger son coaches, so if he’s coaching somewhere around the country, I’ll try to see if there’s a game in the NHL that I can go scout, so that way you can end up doing both. Last year I was able to make all three of my granddaughter’s birthdays. Those are the things you cherish. You try to maximize every day, just a lot of the times it doesn’t happen to be a holiday.
SB: How did your parents instill this sense of family in you guys growing up?
Mark: It’s the way we were brought up with things that were instilled in us four children by our parents. I know with my dad, he grew up with nine kids in the family. During the Depression, they grew up just in a tiny little farmhouse and he had no choice. Everything was about family. And he was always that way. And my mom had a poor upbringing with her parents, and I think that really impacted her life in the fact that she wasn’t going to let that happen with her kids.
I know for a fact, my mom dedicated her life to her four kids, and she disciplined us when we needed it, and she got us to school when we needed it. I think just about every single year in Detroit minor hockey, [we] played a minimum of 100 games every year, and practiced three days a week on top of that. And most of the games we played … I’d say 60 to 70 percent of them were in Ontario. And they were long drives … Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and back to school. I know the one year she said she put on more than 25,000 miles just driving us to games. On top of everything else, she was the one who had to get us to those games just because Dad wasn’t there to do it.
Marty: I always say we had two Hall-of-Famers in the family. Well, three, counting Mark.
SB: What were some fun stories about growing up with your Dad?
Marty: I’ll always remember, when we were little guys, like four or five years old, he’d take us down to rink and go out about an hour before the rest of the players go out, and he’d just put us on his shoulders and then skate around the ice fast. And as a little kid, it feels like you’re in a jet airplane or something like that. It was probably the first moment of thrill out of being out on the ice in hockey. Plus, you’re up in the air so high. The glass used to be short on the edges, but even the glass behind the net, you were almost head-high up where the glass was. So that was exciting as a kid.
SB: What do you hear most from other people about your dad?
Mark: I always know people who know my father because they never ever talk about him as a hockey player. They always talk about him as a human being and that was the example he led by as a father in our family. He’s such a better person than a hockey player and he was right at the top of the heap as a hockey player, so it makes him pretty special. I’ve met probably four or five people in my lifetime who just have a natural way about them that everybody responds to in such a positive way. It’s all natural. It’s not anything they do, it’s just the people they are. I hear stories all the time, and we get letters all the time about just what a wonderful human being he is, and how he just makes everyone just feel so welcome and comfortable. So if there’s anything that you should know about Gordie Howe, it’s that he’s a much better person than a hockey player.
SB: As former players, what do you think of the changes in the NHL today?
Marty: I used to be upset about all the changes in the rules and everything. I was one of the ones who, you used to control the game as players. The referees were there when things get totally out of hand, and they would call penalties. [The league tried] to go to a more finesse game and to me, it’s coming around now to where I enjoy it again. I kind of finally let it go.
I like the changes. I like the open ice. I like the guys being able to show their skill. The game is so fast now, it just happens so quick. With the five-on-five hockey, there’s not a whole lot of room out there. So being able to have the four-on-four play, and a lot of the three-on-three in overtime, I think it’s a great idea. I know from our practices, when we play 3-on-3, it just opens it up. One little mistake, it’s a breakaway, or two-on-one the other way. And if they miss, it’s two-on-one the other way.
I doubt the goalies really like the shootout part of it. It kinds of exposes them. It puts a lot of pressure on the goalies. The guy, if he misses, well, you miss. If the goalie lets it in, it’s heartbreaking for him. But I like how things have turned around, and how the game is progressing. It does let the talent show more.
Mark: The game is still pretty exciting. I worry a little bit about players getting hurt so much. Back in the day, there were a lot of guys who could always skate well, but there were always some guys who couldn’t skate well. But now, most of the players are big and strong and if they come in without being held up at all … you take a guy who is 220 pounds and he’s coming at 20 miles per hour and he’s been skating for 80 feet, something’s got to give. And back when I played, your defense partner could hinder that guy from being able to get in. He might get a piece of you, but it’s not going to be the full brunt of the hit. I’d like to see somehow the players be able to protect themselves a little bit better.
The three-on-three, I wish they had it when I played. In penalty situations, we played a lot of three-on-three and four-on-four, that kind of thing. And I loved it. And I certainly prefer it a lot more than a shootout. I think it’s been pretty well accepted by most of the players and the fans as well. So it’s exciting. It’s fun to watch. I know some games still go to the shootout. But what I don’t like about the shootout is that the guys picks the puck up at center, and if you had stopwatch, it might be 10 seconds before the guy shoots the puck. The need to say you have five seconds to make the play. Like I said, it’s not really a hockey play. Or let somebody chase the guy, make him hurry. Do something!