TORONTO - Seated on a stage next to his son Marty and an assortment of NHL alumni, Gordie Howe was the picture of strength as details of the annual Baycrest International Pro-Am Hockey tournament were unveiled Wednesday at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But when his late wife Colleen's name was mentioned, the 81-year-old hockey legend could no longer keep a brave face. The tears started to flow as Marty tenderly rubbed his father's neck and he struggled to regain his composure.
It was a rare emotional public appearance by Howe since Colleen's death less than a month ago.
In addition to unveiling the highlights for the annual charity event, tournament organziers also announced the launch of the Gordie and Colleen Fund for Dementia Research in Toronto. On March 6, Colleen succumbed to Pick's disease, a rare form of dementia similar to Alzheimer's. The fund will support patient outreach programs and clinical drug trials at Baycrest, a city hospital.
Asked how he was holding up, Howe admitted he's having a tough time.
"Not very good," Howe replied. "But I'd be disappointed in me if I wasn't."
That was about all Howe said about his wife's death as event organizers were quick to limit questions to hockey.
Despite his obvious grief, Howe said there was never a doubt in his mind that he wouldn't attend the event.
"I hate to make a commitment to somebody and then renege on it so when they mentioned what day it would be, it was perfect," he said. "There were no questions asked."
Marty Howe agreed, even though his father was ill last week with a nasty cold.
"I took him to the doctor's and they got rid of that," he said. "I think it's important to him.
"He still needs some time to recover from all this but he's strong. He likes being in public, he likes helping people and has always been that way and that's why people like him."
Later Wednesday, there was a standing ovation for Howe when he was introduced during a stoppage in play in the first period of the Philadelphia-Toronto game at Air Canada Centre.
Former NHL players Mike Pelyk and Mark Napier joined him in a standing room area in the lower bowl as announcer Andy Frost explained the Baycrest project. Players on both teams stood at the benches and tapped their sticks, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Howe.
The lengthy ovation touched Howe, who put his left hand over his eyes and shed tears as Pelyk and Napier consoled him with pats on the back before the group exited into an interior corridor.
Known as "Mrs. Hockey," Colleen promoted the sport in her own right and stood outside her husband's shadow through her charitable work and success as a businesswoman and author.
Gordie, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was one of the game's greatest players during a 32-year pro career. He led Detroit to four Stanley Cups and won seven MVP awards in the NHL and World Hockey Association.
Gordie and Colleen Howe were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000 along with sons Mark and Marty.
Colleen was enshrined for her work in youth hockey, founding the Detroit Junior Red Wings, the first junior hockey team in the United States, and developing the first indoor ice arena, "Gordie Howe Hockeyland," in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores.
She discovered in 1973 that the upstart WHA allowed players under age 20, something the NHL did not. The discovery cleared the way for Gordie to play on the same team as their sons and also gave young stars like Wayne Gretzky an earlier opportunity to play professionally.
She also was one of the first female sports agents, negotiating contracts for her husband with the WHA's Houston Aeros and Hartford Whalers. Colleen also negotiated her husband's first endorsement contract
After Howe retired from the NHL at age 52 in 1980, he joined his wife in her business and charitable endeavours.
But Marty Howe said it was difficult for his family to watch Pick's disease slowly take its toll on his mother.
"It's very hard," he said. "To see somebody slip away piece by piece and not being able to a thing about it is probably the most difficult thing I've ever seen or had to do.
"(Colleen) was brilliant. She was one of those workaholics who never slept. She made our clothes, she disciplined us, she took care of us, she taught us, she did everything. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."
He said it was especially difficult to see such an active and vibrant woman slowly succumb to Pick's. But he described his father as a doting husband in his wife's final years.
"He's so strong," Marty said. "He always committed the time and spent the money to have people in and have her home-cared.
"He's one of those guys who if he went out on your lawn he doesn't use weed killer, he picks every one by hand and he's on a mission. Over these years he's been on a mission to take care of her as best he could and he stuck to it.
"It's such a gradual thing and takes away one thing at a time. The last two years she didn't know anybody, didn't talk and couldn't walk. It was tough on everybody. Every once in a while you could tell she's there because if you looked into her eyes you could see a little sparkle. But most of the time after a while all you got was that blank stare."