Passing of 'Mrs. Hockey' still hurts

Updated: June 9, 2009, 3:34 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Mr. Hockey is hurting.

Gordie Howe's wife, Colleen, died three months ago and life hasn't gotten any easier for the Hockey Hall of Famer.

[+] EnlargeGordie Howe
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesRed Wings players say it's always special when Gordie Howe, seen at Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, pays a visit.

"You can think you're a big, strong guy, but if something like that happens, it makes you as weak as a kitten," Howe said in an interview with The Associated Press before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals in Detroit. "I watched her when she choked, put her head back and went. That was hard to take."

The 81-year-old Howe planned to be in Connecticut on Tuesday night with his son Marty to watch his beloved Detroit Red Wings play at Pittsburgh in Game 6 needing a win to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

"We're trying to keep dad occupied," said Mark Howe, director of pro scouting for the Red Wings. "He's great when he's with people -- family or strangers. But if no one is around him, he says, 'It's pretty lonely.' Especially at night, it's been pretty difficult for him."

It wasn't easy for Howe when his wife was living with Pick's disease, a degenerative brain disorder that causes dementia. She died at home in March at 76.

"Mom couldn't speak at all for the last 3½ years," Mark Howe said. "The last two years, she was confined to a wheelchair or bed at home -- where dad wanted to keep her -- and was in bad shape after dealing with the disease for at least 10 years.

"It was really hard on dad because he was alone with her when the caregivers left at 8 at night until they came back at 8 in the morning."

Before the disease took hold, Colleen Howe lived a full life. The woman known as Mrs. Hockey was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.

"Somebody recognized her abilities," Gordie Howe said.

She founded the Detroit Junior Red Wings, the nation's first junior hockey team, and developed the first indoor ice arena, "Gordie Howe Hockeyland," in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores.

"We could ill-afford that rink," Gordie Howe said. "But she wanted to give a lot of kids the chance to play and she did."

We're trying to keep dad occupied. He's great when he's with people -- family or strangers. But if no one is around him, he says, 'It's pretty lonely.' Especially at night, it's been pretty difficult for him.

-- Mark Howe on his father, Gordie Howe

She was one of the first female sports agents and discovered in 1973 that the upstart WHA allowed players under age 20 while the NHL did not. That cleared the way for her husband to play with sons Mark and Marty and gave young stars such as Wayne Gretzky an earlier opportunity to play professionally.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Colleen Howe was a "formidable woman, the wife and partner of our iconic player, the matriarch of a remarkable hockey family."

Mr. Hockey is a living legend in Detroit and the Red Wings don't take it for granted that he still pops in the dressing room to say hello.

Howe scored 801 goals, a total only Gretzky topped, and led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups from 1950-1955.

He won the Hart Trophy six times as NHL MVP and was a 21-time All-Star. He played in Detroit from 1946-71, spent six years in the WHA and came back to the NHL with Hartford during the 1979-80 season, netting 41 points at the age of 51.

"It's special whenever he's around," said Red Wings forward Kris Draper, who joined the storied franchise in 1993. "Lately, we've been seeing him more. It's pretty neat when you see him and Ted Lindsay and think about what they did in the 1950s is what we're doing today."

Draper's 7-year-old son might keep the tradition going after a recent talk with Howe.

"He said to Gordie, 'Why did you want to be a hockey player?' Draper recalled. "And Gordie said, 'I loved it when I was a kid and when I was playing, and I still love it. And my son said, 'Mr. Howe, I love it, too.' How awesome is it that a 7-year-old boy can go up to Mr. Hockey and have a chat like that?"

Howe doesn't freely engage in conversations as much as he did before his wife died, but he still makes time for people who want to talk -- even if he makes them work for it.

"Got a minute?" a reporter asked him Saturday night.

"No, maybe in 30 minutes," Howe replied.

"OK," the reporter said, walking way.

"Hey! I was just kidding," Howe said.

The exchange didn't surprise his son.

He can still turn it on," Mark Howe said. "It's natural."

Howe marvels at how much better the league has become with the influx of European players instead of just relying on North Americans.

"I'm goofy crazy about this sport called hockey," he said.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press