With the gala “Howe Family Night” rapidly approaching Saturday night, Connecticut hockey fans again owe a major dose of gratitude to the Big Bad Boston Bruins for “The First Family of Hockey” returning to Connecticut.
The uppity Bruins helped drive the upstart World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers to Hartford in 1973, a year after winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. The Bruins haven’t won hockey’s Holy Grail since then, so consider it The Curse of the Whale.
Then in 1977, legendary Gordie Howe and his hockey-playing sons, Mark and Marty, were looking to continue to play together after four seasons with the WHA’s Houston Aeros. They wanted to stay with the Aeros because of their close ties with the Houston community and the quality of the team, which had won a fourth consecutive Western Division title before being eliminated in the AVCO Cup semifinals by the Winnipeg Jets, led by the famed line of Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.
With the Howes leading the way, the Aeros had won the AVCO Cup twice and lost in the finals the previous three years, but the players weren’t paid $8,500 each for the playoffs in 1977 because the financially strapped team used the money to pay off bills.
“I don’t know how they got away with that, but they did, and nobody said anything,” Mark said.
Earlier that season, Aeros owner George Bolin had called Whalers owner/managing general partner Howard Baldwin and said the Whalers could have the Howes because he was too frustrated trying to sign new contracts with them. Baldwin didn’t think that was possible and called Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife and the agent for her husband and sons until she died in 2009.
“We both got hysterical and agreed we had to wait until the end of the season,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin and Colleen talked during the season, and after the Aeros failed to pay the players their playoff money and offered Gordie, Mark and Marty one-year contract extensions at the same money – $250,000 for Gordie (he made only $100,000 in his last two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings), $125,000 for Mark, $110,000 for Marty – the Howes were convinced they wanted to seek greener pastures.
“As much as we liked it in Houston, liked the group of guys we were with, including (coach) Bill Dineen (the future Whalers coach), it was a pretty darn good thing,” Mark said. “They had a lot of good, young players coming along with some experienced guys, so we were very competitive. It’s hard to leave a good situation, one that you’re very much attached to emotionally, but when you see the team is in such dire need financially that it’s holding the players’ money, you could see the handwriting on the wall. But it’s still hard emotionally to tear yourself away from that, even though you know it’s not a good situation.”
The Howes’ choice came down to Boston and Hartford. The Bruins held Mark’s NHL rights and offered a five-year contract at $225,000 a year, which was $100,000 more than the Aeros offered and about $25,000 more than the Whalers. Ironically, one of the Bruins’ most hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, held Marty’s rights, so if Mark and Marty signed with their respective teams, they would have been split up.
But the Bruins held the key to the Howes’ future. They planned to acquire Marty’s rights, but for some reason, they wanted Gordie to retire – again. They preferred that “Mr. Hockey” work for a local steel company rather than continue to attract fans, score goals, hand out assists and toss elbows at anyone who dare mess with him or his kids.
“Dad still wanted to play, so that was a major, major deterrent in Boston,” Mark said. “For me, Boston was my best offer, and everyone told us to get in the NHL. It was a chance to get with a really strong team, so it was a great offer, but dad wouldn’t be able to continue to play.”
So the Howes focused on Hartford. When Baldwin sensed he had a good shot at getting the Howes, he dispatched general manager/coach Jack Kelley and chief financial officer Dave Andrews to meet with them on a farm they were renting with friends in suburban Detroit. After a few days of negotiations, Kelley called Baldwin to say they were close to a deal.
Baldwin went to the farm and finalized the deal in a most unique manner.
“When I got there, Colleen was in the field feeding two llamas and a goat, which attacked me,” Baldwin recalled with a smile. “We got hysterical over it, went and had a wonderful meal together and then went back to the hotel, rolled up our sleeves and started right at it.
“Around 1:30 or 2 in the morning, I remember Gordie realizing that my attention deficit was kicking in and he said to Colleen, ‘Come on, let’s go in the other room for a little powwow.’ They stayed in there for about a half-hour and then Gordie came out and said, ‘You’ve got yourself a family of hockey players.’ ”
Baldwin’s next challenge was to get the deal announced as soon as possible because he thought it would take awhile to get the contracts signed and he didn’t want the Howes to have a change of heart, though he doubted that would happen. Baldwin returned to Hartford to let his partners know what had transpired and then called Colleen two or three times a day over the weekend to make sure everything was in order.
“Once they made up their mind, their mind was made up, which was great,” Baldwin said.
The following week, the Whalers announced the signing of the Howes at a press conference at which Colleen presented Baldwin with a miniature goat.
“The announcement caught the Bruins completely off guard,” Baldwin said. “A lot of people wonder if there’s animosity between us and the Bruins, and there isn’t any longer, at least as far as I know. Whatever tension there was, it was because of catching them off guard. There had been some problems with the old Bruins ownership, but I have nothing but the highest regard for the Jacobs family, Jerry and Charlie. They’ve been huge assets to the National Hockey League, and (general manager) Harry Sinden has become a terrific friend.
“In fairness, the Bruins competed like hell and we competed like hell, and this one we happened to get.”
The Howes signed 10-year contracts – $2.5 million for Gordie, $2 million for Mark, $1 million for Marty. The Whalers welcomed the Hall of Fame father with open arms, and the Howes became Whalers assets instead of a trio that had helped dish out disappointment and heartache on the team and the city.
“Being able to keep playing with Gordie was the biggest seller (on signing with the Whalers),” said Marty, who replaced his mother as the president of Power Play International and still lives in Glastonbury with his wife, Mary. “Dad could still play, and he wasn’t ready to retire after his first season back in the NHL either. He wanted to play another year, but I think (general manager) Larry Pleau tried to singlehandedly dismantle the Howes.”
Continuing to play with his father and as a family was also the determining factor for Mark.
“I would have made more in Boston, but you had to weigh that against Gordie playing or having to retire because of me, so it made the decision pretty easy,” Mark said. “I wanted to go to the NHL, but not at the expense of my father retiring. You don’t even consider that.
“It wasn’t that I settled for Hartford. It was just that it was the right thing to do for the family, plus it was still a very good offer for me. I was still in the WHA and not the NHL, but I figured I was going to get there at some point. It just prolonged the getting there.”
It also enabled a delighted Gordie to play more with his sons.
“It was so much fun,” Gordie said, “and it prolonged my career, too. I had played in exhibition games with them, so it was great having Marty on defense and Mark on the wing. Every time I thought Mark should be up near the blue line somewhere, he’d be there. It saved me a lot of turning around and getting hit.
“The time in Hartford made me want to play more. Some people would come by and say they thought I’d be doing this or that. I’d say, ‘Just stick around a minute.’ ”
The Howes’ signing did more than just help the Whalers on the ice. They joined the team in 1977 and midway through their first season, the Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed on Jan. 18, 1978.
“The Howes put this city and this franchise on the map,” Baldwin said. “I’m not saying they’re the only reason the Civic Center got rebuilt, but who knows what would have happened if they weren’t here. So I’m genuinely praying that people will show up in droves for them (Saturday night). I remember doing something in Des Moines, Iowa, and telling all the people, ‘Remember this day because you’re part of a city that’s honoring the Babe Ruth of hockey and the first family of hockey.’ How many people wouldn’t remember if they were at Fenway Park and saw Ted Williams hit his last home run. This is going to be one of those moments Saturday night.”
The Howes got to the NHL sooner than later when the Whalers, Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers joined the more established league in 1979. The Whalers made the playoffs in their first NHL season but were eliminated in the first round by the Canadiens. At 52 years old, Gordie had 15 goals and 26 assists while playing in all 80 games, often alongside another tough guy, Nick Fotiu, who had a career-high 10 goals that season.
In fact, when asked what his most memorable moments were in Hartford, Gordie cracked, “Fights are good things. Don’t hit my boy or I’ll whack your damn head off. I remember playing an exhibition game in Cleveland and Marty was standing there and a guy was pushing a little. I didn’t want to do anything because all three of us were on the ice, but I just hauled off and nailed the guy. He wasn’t treating us very nice, so I waxed him.”
One of the most memorable moments of Gordie distinguished career occurred when he was named to play in a record 23rd All-Star Game and received a four-minute standing ovation when he was the last player introduced to the crowd at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. That honor is usually reserved for the hometown player(s) in the game, but defenseman Reed Larson was introduced before the public address announcer said, “And from the Hartford Whalers, representing all of hockey with great distinction for five decades, No. 9.”
As the fans chanted, “Gor-die, Gor-die, Gordie,” Howe broke from the player line several times, bowed, waved to the crowd and wiped away a tear as the ovation continued and the players, including a 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky making his first All-Star appearance, tapped their sticks on the ice. Howe then joined Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, the other members of the Red Wings’ famed “Production Line,” for the ceremonial first puck drop between starting centers Marcel Dionne and Bryan Trottier. Fittingly, Howe assisted on the final goal by the Nordiques’ Real Cloutier as the Wales Conference rallied for a 6-3 victory over the Campbell Conference.
Gordie retired for good that summer but remained with the Whalers as a team ambassador and special assistant to Baldwin. Mark played two more seasons with the Whalers before requesting a trade after a falling-out with general manager Larry Pleau and coach Rick Ley.
“Everything was great until I had my injury,” Mark said.
While still playing forward, Mark played a few games on a line with his dad and brother, though he mostly was alongside Gordie or Andre Lacroix, a WHA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer.
“What a great playmaker Andre was,” Mark said. “He was a good guy, my roommate, just one of those guys who is always happy about life. I can’t ever remember seeing him on a down day or being moody. He always enjoyed playing and was a heckuva play maker. All he used to do is tell me to find a hole and get open. It was almost like a receiver with a good quarterback. All you had to do is find a seam in the zone defense, and the puck would be arriving. His anticipation was great.”
The Whalers were swept by Winnipeg in the AVCO Cup finals in 1978 and then lost to Edmonton in seven games in the semifinals in the final go-around before joining the NHL. After playing his first four NHL games at wing, Howe showed up for a game in Buffalo and discovered his name on defense on the blackboard. He started laughing and said, “Who’s messing with me?”
Howe erased his name and put it back on defense, then coach Don Blackburn came in the locker room and told Howe that he was playing defense.
“I said, ‘What?’ ” Howe recalled with a laugh. “I had never played defense except for maybe 20 games in Houston when we ran into injury problems, so I was thinking, ‘So (bleep).’ But I played with anyone and everyone, and I remember my first shift when my partner pinched, and they threw it by him, and I’m facing a 2-on-1 against Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert (of the famous French Connection Line). All I could think was, ‘Thanks for throwing me to the wolves.’ The ice must have been bad because Perreault ended up losing the puck on his own, and I went over and laid on it and had to switch after 15-20 seconds because I was so nervous. That’s how my NHL career started on defense.”
But after the Whalers made the playoffs in their first NHL season, Howe and his teammates continued to play well until that fateful Dec. 27, 1980. Mark was eighth in the league in scoring when he sustained one of the worst injuries in hockey history. Late in the third period of a game against the New York Islanders, Howe was nudged from behind, lost his balance, crashed feet-first into the goal cage and basically impaled himself on a metal post at the center of the net. The injury led directly to the contemporary cage’s redesign, which no longer has any exposed steel within. Howe was removed from the ice on a stretcher, treated in the hospital for a deep laceration to his left thigh and buttocks. The puncture narrowly missed the base of his spine, but he also could have bled to death.
The night he got injured, Howe weighed 192 pounds. When he miraculously returned six weeks later against the Philadelphia Flyers, he had lost 21 pounds, which was 14 less than at its high point after requiring a liquid diet to avoid intestinal infections.
“I went into panic. I thought I was going to die,” Howe recalled of the mishap. “(The post) scraped just outside my rectum and cut a little bit of the tissue on my sphincter muscle. And it went in at an angle so it almost came out of the side of my hip.
“I remember the doctor saying it missed my spinal cord by about an inch-and-a-half. You’re that close to never walking again, and if it had gone straight in, it might have punctured my intestines. And if it had cut through my sphincter muscle, you have to wear a colonoscopy bag for the rest of your life, so I missed that by a fraction of an inch. A quarter of an inch in a different direction, and my career was done. So as bad as it was, the way I look at is I was pretty lucky.”
Howe was basically confided to bed for four weeks and had bad infections in the 51/2-inch-deep wound that had to be drained several times. But Howe worked extra hard to get back because he wanted to play in his first NHL All-Star Game that was the day after the game in Philadelphia.
“We were in the top 10 in the league when myself, (standout center) Mike Rogers and a few other guys had got hurt,” Howe said. “My career was taking off, but by the time Rogers and I got back, the team was already out of the playoff picture so you’re trying to get back. If I was in Philly when this happened, I wouldn’t have been allowed to play because I was just a mere pittance of what I was before the injury.”
It took nearly a year for Howe to regain his strength, and he never played at 192 pounds again. He was an All-Star again the next season and played for Team USA in the 1981 Canada Cup. When Howe couldn’t completely regain his magic, Pleau traded him to the Flyers as part of a three-team deal with the Edmonton Oilers on Aug. 20, 1982, one of several days that live in infamy in Whalers history.
“There had been a lot of rumors about me being traded, and I had a no-trade contract,” Howe said, “so the conflict started between Larry Pleau and the rest of the Howe family. I still hadn’t regained all of my strength and was really struggling, and that was the year they also traded Mike Rogers. So my last year in Hartford was not happy because the coaching staff did not like me. They weren’t happy with my game, but I wasn’t either. It took more than a year for me to start playing closer to my old self again.”
So the joy of playing with his father and brother – “I don’t know if I can even put it into words,” he said – ended with Mark giving the Whalers a list of four teams that he would go to: the Flyers, Islanders, Rangers and Bruins.
“They were four of the top teams in the league,” Howe said. “I had been used to winning my whole life, and in my last year-and-a-half in Hartford, we became a losing team and I hated it. And the relationship between myself and management was not very good, so it was a bad environment for me. It was obvious that they didn’t want me around. It was a year of my life that I knew my bosses didn’t like me.”
Howe’s career then really took off and has many believing he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame with his father. The backbone of one of the NHL’s best defensive teams of the mid-1980s, Mark was a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman three times (1982-83, 1985-86 and 1986-87) and helped lead the Flyers to the 1985 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Oilers of Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.
Howe had his best season in 1985-86 when he posted some of the best numbers ever by an NHL defenseman. He had 24 goals and 58 assists and was an unfathomable plus-85. He also had seven shorthanded goals while being the lifeline out of the Flyers defensive zone with his outstanding skating and passing ability. Unfortunately for Howe, Coffey had one of the best seasons by a defenseman, breaking Bobby Orr’s single-season records for goals while getting 138 points. For the second time, Howe finished second in Norris Trophy voting.
The following season, the Flyers led the Prince of Wales Conference in points for a third consecutive season but had a lot of injuries when they again reached the Stanley Cup finals and again lost to Gretzky & Co., this time 3-1 in Game 7.
Knee and back injuries helped turn Howe into a part-time player for most of the rest of his career, and after the 1991-92 season, the Flyers granted Howe free agency so he could win the as-of-yet elusive Stanley Cup. He signed with the Red Wings and helped them become constant Stanley Cup contenders while a steadying influence on Detroit’s young defensive corps, mostly notably future captain Nicklas Lidstrom. Howe would have one more appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, but the Red Wings were swept in 1995 by the New Jersey Devils.
Howe retired after the finals and became a scout with the Red Wings, finally earning that elusive Stanley Cup ring when the dad’s former team won in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. He was elected to the Philadelphia Flyers Hall of Fame in 2001 and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003. He’s now the Red Wings’ chief pro scout, lives in Jackson, N.J. His son, Travis, works in hockey scouting and coaching, and he owns Selects Hockey with three friends that includes hockey schools and camps throughout the country.
Marty played only six games in the Whalers’ first NHL season in Hartford, where he played a few games on a line with Gordie and Mark. He spent most of the next two seasons with the AHL’s Binghamton Whalers before being traded to the Bruins, whom he played with in 1982-83. He returned to the Whalers for the 1983-84 season and then spent most of his final season with Binghamton.
Other than playing with his father and brother and the area being a terrific place to live, Marty doesn’t have many fond memories of the Whalers.
“I love Hartford, which is why I still live here, but I just didn’t like playing there,” Marty said. “We were all excited to get there and start playing together, but it diminished quickly for me. The press was so negative, and some guys couldn’t write anything positive if they had to. And the problem was the whole city read it. I knew who they were going to boo in warm-ups just by reading the article in the morning. And that was after I stopped playing because I didn’t read any press while I was still playing. It would just upset me more than I already was.
“Ten days after I got there, I asked to get traded, which shows you how much I was enjoying myself. I hated even going to the rink. I would have been happy to go anywhere. For me to ask to be traded with my family being there really explains how much I disliked it. Until Emile Francis came in (on May 2, 1983), the organization was never run like a hockey team.
“He just got rid of the deadwood and brought in mostly American Hockey League players and then guys who could play. Then they made some trades, and while we weren’t going to win the Stanley Cup right away, we were respectable. Then they made a good run at it (in 1985-87) before it all fell apart. When Richard Gordon came in as owner, it was all downhill after that.”
While Gordie, Mark and Marty was the “out front” members of hockey’s most famous family, the supreme matriarch was Colleen, who died in 2009 from Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia. Gordie dedicated his book, “9. Nine. A Salute to Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe,” to Colleen when it was released in 2007.
“While I received the applause, you stood behind me and cheered me the loudest,” Gordie wrote. “While I focused on improving my game, you made sure the bills were getting pad. While I was on the overnight trains and planes from city to city, you were tucking in the kids and teaching them to pray for their daddy. You have been my biggest fan. My agent. My dietician. My counselor. And even now as you battle for your life, you are my inspiration, my strength and the love of my life. I love you very much.”
When asked about Colleen’s impact on his life and the family, Gordie said it was two simple words: Do It.
“If you think about it, talk about it or love it, do it,” Gordie said. “If you’re not going to do it, shut up. She wasn’t behind the scenes in everything, she was in front.”
Mark called his mother “a workaholic” who rarely slept more than three or four hours a night. Colleen, one of the first women to be a sports agent, was known as “Mrs. Hockey,” promoting the sport in her own right through extensive charitable work and as a successful businesswoman and author. Colleen, Gordie, Mark and Marty were inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000 largely for her work in youth hockey. She founded the Detroit Junior Red Wings, the first junior hockey team in the United States, and developed the first indoor arena, Gordie Howe Hockeyland, in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores.
Colleen negotiated contracts for Gordie with the Aeros and Whalers and his first endorsement contract. She was born Colleen Joffa in 1933 in Sandusky, Mich., where an ice arena bearing her name was dedicated in 2000. She was living in Detroit when she met Gordie in a bowling alley in April 1950, and they were married on April 15, 1953. She was the founder and president of Power Play International Inc. and Power Play Publications Inc. that were formed to manage the business affairs of herself, Gordie, Mark and Marty.
Colleen also was co-author of the books “After the Applause,” “My Three Hockey Players” and a self-published autobiography, “And … Howe!” In 1982, she was the Republican candidate from Connecticut’s first congressional district, losing to incumbent Democrat Barbara Kennelly. She and Gordie were married 55 years before she died on March 6, 2009 at the family home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She had been treated for years by her youngest son, Murray, who played some hockey, became a doctor and is now the head of the radiology department at Flower Hospital in Sylvania, Ohio, northwest of Toledo.
“I’d go to bed and mom was still awake, then I’d wake up in morning and she was there already and I’m like, ‘Wow,’ ” Mark recalled. “She was very dedicated not only to my dad but the entire family. If someone did something against the family, boy, she really took it to heart and would really fight back. She was just a great wife and a fantastic mother.
“She did all of dad’s stuff, and after the contracts for Marty and I were done, it was us just basically playing. We were both married and had our own lives, and she was busy running for Congress. And when I started looking into my mom and dad’s affairs when she wasn’t doing real well, I discovered how much they did for charities. They did a lot of fundraising and a lot of things to help people, and a lot of it went pretty well unnoticed. Dad got into a big personal-appearances business, and a lot of what they did was to benefit a lot of charitable organizations.
“She was big in the Amway business for about two years, but I think she was always trying to do a lot of different things to raise money for charities in Detroit and all around Connecticut. Dad did a ton of things, whether it was in Newington or New Haven. He did make some money because that was kind of how they were making their income, but at the same time that they were bringing in income, they raised a lot more money for charity than they made for themselves. To me, that was probably my mom’s greatest contribution. And I don’t think there’s ever been a mother who has been more loyal to family than she was.”
Marty has been especially close with his father since Colleen died, often hosting him near where the family once lived and not far from The Gallery, a restaurant that used to bear his name, Gordie’s Place. Marty and Gordie spent last weekend in Calgary, Alberta, helping a Toronto-based organization that raises money to fight dementia named for the Gordie and Colleen Howe Research Fund.
“Anything our family did was organized by her,” Marty said. “She’d get sponsors for our teams and volunteer for the March of Dimes and every other organization you can think of, besides taking care of us. When we were younger, she even made our clothes. They’d be a little too big so they would fit for a few years, so it was a little embarrassing. But Gordie wasn’t making any money, only like $17,000 a year when he started and $45,000 in his 20th season. Now it has totally flipped, and there has to be a middle ground there some place.”
Marty and Mark played for a team started and organized by Colleen because there was no place for youngsters to play unless they went to college. She got all the volunteers to run the team, which sometimes played before 15,000 people at the Olympia and became the Junior Red Wings.
“I think we were outdrawing the Red Wings,” Marty said with a laugh. “Colleen did the whole thing. I’m sure she had help, but it was all her idea. She was one of those people who never slept, always wrote (thank you) notes and would make presents like collages of pictures and birds. I don’t know how she did it all. I do all of Gordie’s stuff now, and I can’t do a quarter of what she did and I have a computer.”
Though seemingly in the background, Marty said his mother “liked the limelight a little bit.”
“She wasn’t afraid to introduce herself right away, but usually it was someone else talking about her accomplishments,” Marty said. “It wouldn’t much be herself because she’d just be organizing the next thing coming up. She always liked to meet everyone and do the notes, and if someone said, ‘Hey, those are nice ear rings,’ she’d give them to them.’ That’s just the way she was, and people still remember.”
Marty pointed to a 65th birthday tour around Canada that was supposed to visit 65 cities and ended up going to 80. Mark’s son, Travis, was playing in a charity hockey tournament in Toronto, and a woman commented to Colleen about how nice the Howe bracelet she had on was. Colleen took off the bracelet and gave it to the woman.
“That’s the kind of stuff she always did,” Marty said. “She was always trying to help people out.”
Baldwin said Colleen should be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Colleen Howe was as good a manager/agent that I ever dealt with, in film or in sports,” Baldwin said. “She was great, and a helluva lot of fun to be with. She had a great sense of humor. I loved being around Colleen Howe.”
Amazingly, the Howe hockey legacy began with Gordie skating on one foot as he was forced to share the pair of skates his family purchased at the height of the Great Depression from another family in his native Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, while their parents were in desperate need of money to feed their children. Gordie got one skate, his sister Edna the other. Gordie eventually purchased the other skate from Edna for a dime.
In 1943, at 15, Howe attended his first training camp with the New York Rangers in Winnipeg, Manitoba. On his first day in camp, he watched his new teammates get dressed so he knew where each piece of equipment went. A year later, he was invited to the Red Wings’ camp in Windsor, Ontario, and assigned to the Ontario Hockey Association’s junior team in Galt but couldn’t play because the Saskatchewan association wouldn’t permit him a transfer.
Gordie joined the Red Wings in 1946 but nearly had his career ended prematurely when he missed a check, went headfirst into the boards and fractured his skull during the 1950 playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The injury was so severe he was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery to relieve building pressure on his brain. But the next season, he returned to record 86 points, winning the scoring title by 20 points. He then went on to become “Mr. Hockey,” winning four Stanley Cups and making 23 All-Star appearances, the most memorable and emotional being the last in 1980 as a member of the first-year Hartford Whalers at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where he was introduced last and received a four-minute standing ovation that brought the tough-minded Howe to tears.
Bill Gadsby broke into the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks the same year that Gordie joined the Red Wings, and he became one of Gordie’s closest friends. He and his wife, Edna, often vacationed and took fishing trips with Gordie and Colleen to such places as Florida, Hawaii, Panama, Ecuador, Canada and north Michigan and also enjoyed weddings, birthday and anniversaries together.
“Not only was Gord a superstar on the ice, but he was a great ambassador for the hockey league, and still is, always willing to sign autographs for hours,” Gadsby said in an entry in Howe book. “He’s friendly to all, especially the children. He would correct them if they were rude. I’ve often heard him ask a youngster if he or she knew how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ He has been involved in countless charities, giving of his time and energy.
“Gord has always been devoted and protective of his family, and he showed courage and patience while caring for his beloved wife Colleen. Although she doesn’t recognize us anymore, we still visit every Sunday after church. Gord and I often recall the past and need each other if our memories slip.”
Gadsby knows firsthand what a caring individual that Gordie is. In September 2005, Gadsby had a double heart bypass, then four months later he had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. His book, ‘The Grateful Gadsby,” was released that season, and Gadsby was scheduled to do a book signing at Joe Louis Arena. Gordie and one of their friends, Felix Gatt of Creative Impressions, had a large sign made up, and not only did they sell plenty of books that Gordie personalized, they had fans write get-well messages to Gadsby on the sign. When Gordie arrived at the hospital the next day, he had all the doctors and nurses sign the sign and put it on display for everyone to see.
“It’s amazing,” Gadsby wrote. “He’s recognized easily and still creates quite a stir when he walks in anywhere. He deserves every honor that he’s ever received. I’m happy he and Colleen came into our lives.”
Besides his dad’s few run-ins with Robbie Ftorek, his former teammate on the U.S. national team, Mark’s most vivid memories of his father were a game in Chicago when Gordie and fellow Hall of Famer Dave Keon each scored and when Marty scored one of his two NHL playoff goals in the fabled Montreal Forum in the Whalers’ first season. The latter also was Marty’s fondest memory of the Whalers.
“I’d broken my wrist that season and had just come back,” Marty recalled. “It was my first NHL goal and came in the Forum, but there wasn’t even a goalie in the net because somebody had crosschecked Gordie so he just kind of put the goalie in the net, which was when you were allowed to crosscheck the goalie. That kind of helped because my shot was going about one mile per hour since I had just got back from breaking my wrist. You could watch it all the way just kind of float into the top of the net.”
Then there was the night in Quebec when Gordie scored on assists from Mark and Marty.
“As the play went on, you didn’t really think about it,” Mark said. “Then you’re sitting on the bench and you hear them announcing the goal and think, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool.’ ”
Gordie does 40-50 appearances a year, mostly for charities, when he isn’t spending long stretches of time with Mark, Marty and Murray. Gordie turns 83 on March 31 but has remained young by exercising 60-to-90 minutes five or six days a week.
“Murray got him into walking, and I think it has made a big difference in him,” Mark said.
Marty said his dad’s busiest time is September, October and November when hockey season is starting. His down time is the summer when he plays in charity golf tournaments and does some fishing with Marty, who is hosting dad for the next few months.
One of their appearances will be Saturday night before the Whale hosts the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be lowered and then raised and re-retired as he and Mark and Marty look on. Colleen Howe also will be honored as a new banner saluting the Howes will be raised and area fans will be able to salute the Howe clan for their contributions to hockey in general and the Hartford market in particular.
“In a lot of ways, Gordie Howe really put Hartford on the hockey map,” Whalers Sports and Entertainment president and COO Howard Baldwin Jr. said. “He brought true greatness to the city and helped usher the Whalers into the NHL. We feel that now is the perfect time to honor him and his legendary family with so many great things going on with the Whale, the Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest having been such a momentous event, and so much excitement around hockey in Connecticut right now.”
Prior to the game, fans can meet Gordie and get a personalized autographed book and photo by purchasing a copy of his colorful 185-page book, which sells for $70. He will be signing copies starting at 5:30 p.m. in the XL Center atrium, and the first 2,000 fans will receive a free commemorative 36-page Gordie Howe tribute program full of color photos and stories. There also will be a video tribute to the Howes during pregame ceremonies.
Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Kevin Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.
“I think the next test of this market will be on Howe Family Night,” Baldwin Jr. said. “People should come out and show Gordie the respect that he deserves. It’s one of the biggest nights of the season, and I agree with (Hartford Courant sports columnist) Jeff Jacobs that it’s the time when the tire meets the road. It’s a big game on our schedule, and we don’t have a lot of games left. I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t have 10,000 people.”
The elder Baldwin was even more emphatic.
“Hopefully a lot of folks can be able to tell their kids and grandkids that they were there on Gordie Howe Night,” Baldwin Sr. said. “This is part of why (Whalers Sports and Entertainment is) doing what we’re doing. People forget that there’s a great hockey tradition in this city. You’ve had Gordie Howe, Dave Keon, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky play here, so this is a reminder of what was and what will be again.
“At the end of the season we’ll do our postmortem, but this year convinced me more that we can bring this thing back all the way. You’re never sure, like the last year, what this market is, but this market is everything I had hoped it would be. And the Howes are why our film company is doing the movie on Gordie. Nobody will ever do what he did with his two boys. It’ll never happen again. People say, ‘What about people being in shape and someone getting married young and having a few kids.’ But now with the economics, there’s no incentive for a player, unless you’re a freak of nature, to play beyond 45 because you can make so much money.
“So Saturday night is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that’s going to be happening in Hartford. I hope the people realize that and come out in droves.”
Tickets for Saturday night and all remaining Whale home games are available at the XL Center box office, through Ticketmaster Charge-by-Phone at 1-800-745-3000 and on-line at www.ctwhale.com. Tickets start at $7 at the XL Center ticket office on game day. Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 19 because of the frigid weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.