Sliding toward a shadowed place where light and hope cannot reach
her, a woman sits in a padded chair, and a small black dog licks
her hand. There is a toddler's safety gate at the top of the
basement stairs, and every door that leads outside is equipped
with an alarm, not to keep intruders away from the home in
Bloomington Hills, Mich., a leafy suburb of Detroit, but to keep
the woman inside during the dislocated wanderings that are a
consequence of her terrible, wasting affliction. The man of the
house--one of the paramount athletes of the 20th century, an icon
of humility and patience--is as stricken as his dying wife, and
already feels her loss. "If missing someone is love," says Gordie
Howe, "then that's what it is."
Colleen Joffa Howe has Pick's disease, a lesser-known form of
dementia comparable with Alzheimer's in its inexorable
destruction of the mind, yet specific in the portions of the
brain it attacks. There is no cure. Colleen is 69, and had this
misfortune not befallen her, early next year she would have been
leading her Hall of Fame husband toward a cluster of milestones:
her 70th birthday in February, his 75th in March, their golden
anniversary in April.
Now that cavalcade of happiness will not occur. After years of
private sorrow, the Howes--Gordie, sons Marty, 48, Mark, 47, and
Murray, 42, and daughter Cathy Purnell, 43--have decided that the
time has come to publicly close ranks with the millions of other
families whose elders have faded into the same unreachable
dimness. Extraordinary in their achievements, the great Red Wing
and his family bear a common grief. "It's one of those things
that always happens to someone else," says Marty. "Until it
happens to you."
For at least the past year, Gordie was his wife's sole
caregiver--preparing her meals and medication, shepherding her
through her wanderings, waking in terror at the sound of those
door alarms. (With the disease rapidly progressing, a nurse now
helps him three days a week for four hours each day.) The little
teacup poodle named Rocket, after Gordie's nemesis on the
Montreal Canadiens, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, once was her joy
and companion. But now, says Gordie, "it's just a dog."
November 11, 2002
"When Mom first quit eating," Cathy says of Colleen, who has lost
close to 30 pounds over the last two months, "Dad would order a
pizza. But then he wouldn't eat either, because he didn't want to
be eating if she wasn't."
The chores have been onerous, the toll of sorrow obvious in the
big man's eyes. But Gordie was taught as a small boy on a
Saskatchewan farm not to weep for his woe, nor shun his duty.
"For him," says Murray, a radiologist in Toledo, "it's like
getting a Ph.D. in life."
Colleen Howe was one of the first women to demand and win a place
at the money tables of major league sports. Twenty-nine years
ago, as America's first female player agent, she negotiated the
revolutionary package that brought Gordie out of his early
retirement--he was only 45!--and teamed him on the ice with Marty
and Mark in the World Hockey Association for the happiest seasons
of Gordie's legendary career. She raised and nursed and
chauffeured four athletic children and arranged her husband's
every personal appearance, every grand tour, as well as hundreds
of acts of public and secret charity, leaving the man his mates
called Power free to rearrange the scoring records of the NHL and
the facial bones of his opponents.
"She fought as diligently as any agent I've ever worked with, in
sports or Hollywood," says Howard Baldwin, who was president of
the New England Whalers when Colleen negotiated the move of
Gordie, Marty and Mark to that team from the WHA's Houston Aeros
in 1977. During those negotiations, Baldwin, now a film producer
in California, flew to Michigan, where Colleen had purchased a
small ranch and was raising exotic livestock. "There she was, out
in the middle of a field, feeding llamas," Baldwin recalls. "I
got attacked by a goat as I walked out there. We went at it until
two in the morning, but we got the deal done. At the press
conference [to announce that the Howes were joining the Whalers],
she gave me a toy goat."
Shrewd and visionary, Colleen even had Gordie's name trademarked,
as well as their sobriquets: Mr. and Mrs. Hockey. For this
relentless drive and ambition, she was ridiculed. "Back then,
hockey wives were told, 'Stay at home and stay out of the way,'"
says Mark. "Even when I got engaged 25 years ago, I remember
telling my fiancee, 'My team comes first,' and that sort of
stuff. It took us a few years before we realized that's pretty
"She got angry at the walls that were built up," Cathy recalls.
"But she said, 'Well, I'll just pull 'em down!'"
"I used to hear people say, 'Your mom's butting into your dad's
business,'" Mark says. "Well, after he retired, the NHL wanted
him to go everywhere for nothing. Mom said, 'Gordie's not going
anywhere unless he gets paid.' People said, 'That's horses,' but
she stood her ground because that's how he made his living."
A few weeks ago, the younger of Cathy's two daughters, 15year-old
Jade, was assigned to write an essay on a topic of her choosing
for her honors English course in Helena, Mont. Jade's composition
is titled Gone.
She used to call, and we would talk on the phone for hours. I
could barely get a word in so I mostly listened....
I wonder what she thinks about now when I talk to her. Confusion
is a constant with her. I wonder how long it will be before
Gramma no longer recognizes me. The doctors' answers are no more
clear than hers. I miss her, and she isn't even gone yet.
Arnold Pick was a German neurologist in the late 19th century.
The malady that he first detected in a patient who had lost the
ability to speak is classified as a progressive dementia. Its
widely varying symptoms can include aggressiveness, obsessive
walking routines, rudeness and a loss of inhibitions. Some
patients survive 10 years; others less than two. That something
was not right with Mrs. Hockey was clear as early as five years
ago. "She used to be so sharp, with such a memory," Gordie says,
"and suddenly those names and numbers weren't coming back."
At first the slips of memory were humorous. "I remember a woman
came over to sell my parents long-term insurance," says Cathy.
"She asked Mom for her phone number, and Mom said, 'I have so
many telephones, I can't remember them all.' She asked Mom for
her address, and Mom said, 'This is where I live--right here.'
And we all were in the other room, laughing."
"We noticed she was different, but we didn't know what to do
about it," says Murray. "Imagine approaching a loved one and
saying, 'We think you're losing your mind, and you need to get
By then, about four years ago, Mrs. Hockey was getting the nine
grandchildren's birthdays mixed up and sending graduation cards a
year early. She was defensive about her lapses; it was overwork,
she protested, the weariness of being a nonstop CEO. At Murray's
insistence, there was testing, including a six-hour interview in
the spring of 2000 with one of Ohio's leading experts on
dementia. The news could not have been worse.
"I sat down with Mom and Dad," Murray says. "I told them, 'This
is a progressive disease--we don't know the exact time frame, but
it will be a long, hard road.'"
Murray is not a neurologist and is not an expert on Pick's
disease. In medical school, he says, it was dismissed in a single
sentence: This is really rare; you'll never see it. The
instructors were wrong. "She's my mom, the biggest influence on
my life of anyone," Murray says. "To slowly lose that person is
very, very hard."
Mr. Hockey is introduced as the keynote speaker at the 19th
annual dinner of the Transportation Club of Detroit. The fete is
a gathering of railroad and trucking people at the sumptuous
Dearborn Inn, near the Ford Motor Company headquarters. "They
used to make us stay here during the playoffs," Gordie whispers
as he walks into the hall. (Some coaches sequester players during
the postseason to keep them focused.) "But I'd sneak out and go
Inside the banquet hall, as the crowd presses forward, it's
bobbleheads and bedlam. Some 40 years ago, when he was earning
$30,000 a season as the most gifted and punishing forward in the
NHL and the league's MVP, Gordie spent his summers traveling
across Canada and signing autographs on behalf of Eaton's
department stores. For this, he would earn an additional $10,000,
enough to buy Colleen and the kids a summer cottage near
Grayling, Mich., which he rarely had time to enjoy. Back then, in
Moncton or Victoria or Port Arthur, he would begin signing
autographs in the stores before seven in the morning and not
cease until the dark of night. A smile, a story, a memory for
An adulatory biographical film--conceived by Mrs. Hockey as part
of Gordie's 65th-birthday celebration in 1993--is shown to the
crowd. Then he moves to the podium. "One pair of pants, one
shirt, nine kids, a father on a tractor," Gordie tells his
audience, encapsulating his prairie origins. "But rich in
He moves on to an anecdote about how Colleen--"a lady who has
been my leader"--pulled off the brilliant triple play that
brought Gordie and teenagers Marty and Mark to the WHA's Aeros in
1973. Gordie, who had retired from the Red Wings two years
earlier, didn't see it coming. "She did a lot of things without
my knowledge," he says about Colleen. "I guess she knew I'd say
Houston went on to win two league championships and then bit the
Texas dust in 1978, leading to the Howes' signing with the
Whalers. After that season the NHL absorbed four WHA teams,
including the Whalers, and Gordie wound up playing on a line with
Bobby Hull and Dave Keon--three old goats with 2,000 pro goals
among them and a combined age of more than 130. But that was long
ago, and now he begins to tell the audience about Colleen's
illness, and the loneliness, and the pain. "I had a lot of
knocks, and this is the biggest one I ever had," he says.
His voice wavers, but he goes on to describe for the gathering
how shy he was the night he went to the Lucky Strike Lanes on
Grand River Avenue in Detroit in the late winter of 1950. "The
greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Gordie, "is that I
went to watch a young lady bowl."
It's no surprise that in Colleen's self-published autobiography,
and...HOWE!, she included some of Gordie's love letters.
June 14, 1952
Once again I have heard three sweet words from you which I should
use more often and that is, "I miss you." They sound awful good
coming to me from such a sweet young lady as you and again I say
I should use them much more often. But the truth is I don't know
much of sweet words so just give me time as I am a comer.
By this time, the awkward Romeo had been in Detroit for six
seasons, had played in five All-Star Games, had seen his name
engraved on the Stanley Cup, had led the league in scoring twice,
and had just been named MVP for the first of six times. He was a
dark-haired, square-jawed, big-shouldered, dangerously handsome
brute who could stickhandle through a mob of Maple Leafs and then
delicately flip the puck into the net. But with Colleen, he was
milking the aw-shucks thing for all it was worth, and it worked
to perfection on a young woman who had never witnessed a hockey
Their backgrounds were disparate. His dad, Ab, drove that tractor
on his farm outside Saskatoon. Her father, Howard Mulvaney,
played the trombone in the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Gordie had
always planned to marry early: "I thought it should be before
25," he says. "Why be old and have young kids?"
Colleen concurred. From the moment she agreed to marry Gordie, he
would defer to her superior intelligence. "Girls have more time
to think," says Mr. Hockey. "They're not whacking each other over
It would be another decade before the Howes knew for sure how
ruthlessly he was being robbed by Red Wings management, though
Colleen had long suspected as much. A defenseman named Bob Baun,
who was traded to Detroit in 1968, broke the NHL's code of
silence and told Gordie over drinks one night that he was earning
twice as much as Gordie was. "When Bobby told me how much he was
making, I said, 'Oh, Jesus.' I believed him, but what could you
say? Back then, nobody was making much money. Our money from one
season was gone before the next."
He went home, and Colleen said, "I told you so." She and Gordie
flew to Fort Lauderdale, to confront Bruce Norris, who owned the
team. Gordie recalls Norris saying, "Oh! All right then--we'll
sign you for two years at $75,000!"
Until the WHA came along in 1972, there was not much Colleen
could do about her husband's pay, and the family lived modestly.
Eventually, Mrs. Hockey nudged the Red Wings to raise Mr.
Hockey's salary toward $100,000.
"Part of my dad's greatness is that he never made big money,"
Murray says. "I'm glad that I didn't grow up with a silver spoon.
It's a blessing that we grew up as a middle-class family."
Obscured in the onrush of encomiums for Gordie in response to the
news of his wife's illness is the harsher side that he showed on
the ice. "He won't like me saying this, but he was the most cruel
hockey player I ever saw," says Mark, who played 22 years in the
WHA and NHL. "Vicious. Absolutely nasty. He was highly skilled.
He was bigger [six-feet, 205 pounds] than most of the other
players of that era, and he had a meanness to him. If somebody
wanted to go that way, he would go as far as that player wanted.
I saw some of the stuff he did when nobody was looking.
"Hurting people--maybe that's what makes a great athlete, the
willingness to do anything to win," Mark continues. "If he did
some of the stuff now that he did then, he'd be suspended all the
time. In Houston a guy hurt Marty in practice. I don't know how
many teeth Gordie knocked out of that guy's mouth, but it was
quite a few--and this was our teammate!
"I remember when we played together, I'd go into the boards and
the man who was covering me would hit me and I'd take the check.
Then, a second later, I'd feel this boom! It was Dad hitting the
guy who hit me! I told him, 'I know you're trying to protect me,
but Dad, I can take his hit, just not yours.'"
"Once he put the skates on, he was a different person," agrees
Marty, who is an assistant coach for the Chicago Wolves of the
American Hockey League. "When we went to training camp the first
year in Houston, I was scared for him. After practice, he turned
not just red [from exhaustion] but different shades of purple.
After 10 days, though, he was dominating everybody."
Last spring, as the Wings moved toward their 10th Stanley Cup,
Mark spent some time with his mother in her last days of mental
clarity. He saw his father's sadness sagging into hopelessness.
"On the ice we always called him Gordie," Mark says, "but when he
was hurt, we called him Dad."
When you claim your bags at the gleaming new Northwest Airlines
terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, big Number
9 looks down on you from a mural of sporting heroes. At the Joe
Louis Arena a photograph on a pillar outside Section 111 shows
him in his early 20s, taut and sharp, a Superman lick of hair
across his brow. And a tribute to youth hockey posted nearby
reads: THIS IS THE FOUNDATION THAT GETS MOMS AND DADS OUT OF BED
ON DARK, COLD WINTER MORNINGS SO THEIR SONS OR DAUGHTERS CAN
SKATE. AND THE DREAM IS ALWAYS THE SAME: MAYBE MY KID WILL BE THE
NEXT GORDIE HOWE....
To his grandchildren, he is simply PeePaw. "I think he's learned
a lot about himself the last two years," Cathy says. "He had more
strength and more intelligence than anyone gave him credit for.
Can he live without her? I hope so.
"Every one of us said, 'Dad, move in with us.' And he said, 'No.
This is my home.'"
"I think at times he's scared," says Murray, "wondering what's
going to happen when she's gone. He'll have to redefine his life,
but he's not one to show fear. Pity is the last thing he wants.
He'll want to be seen as another kind of role model--an ideal
spouse in time of need and an ideal widower who wants to go on
and not give up. I asked him what he would like to do when she's
gone, and he said he wants to keep going out and touch as many
lives as possible."
In Montana, with the first snow of winter on the ground, Cathy
has one last story to share, a tale from when Jade was very
young. She told Gordie once, "PeePaw, I'm going to marry a man
like you when I grow up."
"Then Jade went in the other room," Cathy says, "and I told my
father, 'She doesn't realize--there are no more like you.'"
Allen Abel's fourth book, Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the
Heart of Brooklyn, was republished in March.
"He won't like me saying this," Mark says about Gordie, "but he
was the most cruel player I ever saw."
Colleen was the first woman to demand and win a place at the
big-money table of major league sports.
"This is a progressive disease," said Murray. "We don't know the
time frame, but it will be a long, hard road."