Mark Howe once said those who truly knew Gordie Howe preferred to discuss the person rather than the hockey player.
With four children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Gordie Howe knew how to serve as a role model for not only his family, but his fans. Considered to be one of the greatest players in NHL history, Mr. Hockey died Friday at 88.
During a conversation with NHL.com in November, Howe's sons, Mark and Marty Howe, discussed their father, a 23-time NHL All-Star and four-time Stanley Cup champion as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
"My dad lived and taught us by example, how he conducted himself on and off the ice, and the way he treated his fans and family is something I've always taken very seriously," Mark Howe said. "Obviously I put my dad on a pedestal."
Gordie, Marty and Mark were teammates with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association for four seasons (1973-77) and again in the NHL in 1979-80 with the Hartford Whalers. Prior to playing with Gordie in Houston, Mark thought he knew everything about his dad. He was wrong.
"You don't really understand an athlete until you're on the bench with the guy every day," Mark said. "It was phenomenal to watch what he could do as a 45-year-old. To me it's still the most amazing thing I'd ever seen; he won the MVP [in 1973-74]. Just to watch what he could do every day and dominate was so impressive, and to be a part of that, it was something I'll never forget.
"I played left wing on his line all the time; there are some people with which you have chemistry and some you don't, and you would think the father-son chemistry wouldn't work. But we had great chemistry. I was 18 years old and what an impact that had on me in helping my game. We won a couple of [WHA Avco World championships]."
Gordie had 174 goals and 508 points in 419 WHA regular-season games, including two seasons with the New England Whalers.
Mark told a story San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson shared with him during an intermission one night against the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.
"Doug told me that in his first game against Gordie, my dad accidentally hit him and broke his nose," Mark recalled. "They were fixing him up in the locker room and between periods, Gordie walked around the building and into the [Chicago Blackhawks] locker room and said to him, 'Hey kid, I didn't mean to do that to you.' He introduced himself, and then dad went back and played the game."
Mark said he never heard his father discuss hockey with the family, including his brother Murray and sister Cathy. Mark got all of Gordie's hockey-related stories from former players.
Marty said the impact Gordie had on children made quite an impression on him.
"I get emails from people who Gordie visited as kids in children's wards, and they tell me how huge a difference he made in their lives," Marty said. "I didn't realize exactly how much Gordie and my mom [Colleen] did for other people. Gordie just [had] a special gift with people. When you meet him, within five seconds, you'll be best friends with Gordie Howe.
"Gordie loves kids and he'd always be throwing us in the air or playing baseball with us when he was around."
Marty said the greatest memories of his dad occurred away from the rink, such as the camping trips for 10 days each summer on "some lake in Canada with all the bears and fish" for some male bonding.
One thing Marty enjoyed watching was how his dad always found a way to remain in the game.
"I remember Gordie was backchecking and wasn't quite in shape, so he took his stick, got it just underneath your underarm and tickled your chin with it," Marty said. "That made it tough to skate because your head is moving all over the place because of his stick. The bottom line is, he got all the room he wanted on the ice because he always let everyone know not to mess with him. It always worked."