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Gordie celebrates birthday on fishing trip

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Gordie Howe celebrated his birthday early, enjoying a night out with family last weekend at this Texas restaurant. Mr. Hockey turns 87 this Tuesday, March 31. (Photo courtesy of Mark Howe)

Over the years, Mark Howe has lost track of how many fishing trips he’s taken with his dad.

Excursions along the Jersey Shore, in northern Michigan and charter adventures throughout the Western Hemisphere have resulted in numerous trophy catches.

But that was before Gordie Howe suffered a major stroke last October, leaving him unable to walk let alone cast a line.

Since then, Mr. Hockey underwent controversial stem-cell treatments in Mexico setting him on a miraculous road to recovery. Gordie is doing so much better now that last week Mark and his brother, Murray, took their dad fishing for catfish on a Texas ranch.

“We spent a couple hours fishing and driving around the ranch looking for wild boar and some turkeys, just to do some sight-seeing for dad,” said Mark, the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings. “Dad enjoyed his time. It’s not just laying around and doing nothing. He can experience the fun things that he’s done his whole life – obviously to a different extent – but there is some quality to his life now.

“I never dreamt this would happen. It’s all positive.”

Five months ago, the Howe family was planning a funeral, not a fishing trip.

The greatest player of his generation was paper-thin close to dying. He was in chronic pain from a bulging disk. Walking was near impossible. His speech wasn’t very strong, but the early stages of dementia were also taking a toll on Mr. Hockey’s cognitive ability.

That was all before the Oct. 26 stroke, which left him unable to walk, stand, or feed himself. Bedridden, he was losing weight quickly.

“That’s the first time ever that I saw my dad just close his eyes … he was basically shutting down,” Mark said. “He was going downhill fast.”

Since receiving the stem cells in December, Howe, who is still rehabbing at his daughter Cathy’s home in Lubbock, Texas, has regained the 30 pounds he lost. While he still needs around-the-clock caregivers, he’s working with physical and occupational therapists and continues to show slow improvement every day with his strength and stamina.

“He has the ability to eat and retain fluids again and he eats like a horse,” Mark said. “He needs his naps because when he’s tired he struggles a bit and he gets unsteady on his feet, and his speech can be slurred. But when he’s well rested you can get some decent conversations out of him for short periods of time. He’s aware of what’s going on and he’s doing his therapy. … We’ve been told that they expect his speech to continue to improve in real slow increments but everything that we’ve been told would happen to dad has happened, so I’m expecting his speech and everything to continue to improve.”

The improved health has also restored some of Howe’s trademark personality.

“That’s the thing that you still notice most,” Mark said. “You know how he loves to tease and kibitz and do different things with people. … When I was down there we’re all trying to go into the restaurant and dad stops and looks back and all of the caregivers are women. He motions for her to come up and makes sure that she goes through the door first. I’ve always known him to be a gentleman and he’ll be whispering really soft and people have to come really close and closer. They’ll say, ‘Gordie I can’t hear you’ and he just looks and smiles and then speaks louder. He’ll do it just to tease people. So, yes, much of his personality is there. … What you see mostly is his wonderful, wonderful nature. It’s still very much a part of him.”

In February, Mr. Hockey made his first public appearance in months when he traveled from Lubbock to his native Saskatchewan, where he was honored at the annual Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner, attended this year by Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Hull.

For him to be around to celebrate his 87th birthday I think every day for the rest of his life is just a bonus."Mark Howe

“It was easy to tell that when Wayne was speaking or when Bobby Hull was speaking and the things that they had to say about dad, you could see that he really took it in and he really appreciated it,” Mark said. “To me that was the best part of the evening. But the thing is you know within a half an hour he was going to totally forget it.”

Last week’s fishing trip to Spur, Texas – about an hour east of Lubbock – was less daunting for Gordie. It was meant sort of as an early birthday celebration for the Howe patriarch, who will turn 87 years old on Tuesday.

The day spent fishing, Mark said, was a present to him and his siblings.

“For him to be around to celebrate his 87th birthday I think every day for the rest of his life is just a bonus,” Mark said. “I guess the thing that we’re most happy for is that since he had his stem-cell treatment we hope that it would improve his quality of life just a little bit and give him a fighting chance.”

With three of his four adult children with him last week, Gordie enjoyed an early birthday dinner with a piece of birthday cake at a Lubbock restaurant.

Nothing special is planned for Mr. Hockey on his actual birthday. However, the Red Wings do have plans in store for Tuesday’s home game against the Ottawa Senators, as the first 7,500 fans attending the game will receive a Gordie Howe bobblehead, courtesy of AT&T.

There was some discussion about bringing Gordie to Detroit to celebrate his birthday with Wings’ fans at Joe Louis Arena. But traveling has become burdensome.

“I think it’s too much right now,” Mark said. “I know for him to go to Saskatoon it was too much. It was kind of like when we took him fishing, you know what he can and can’t do.

“We talk as a family and part of when you talk is ‘what if’ in the future. The first ‘what if’ is my niece, Murray’s daughter Meghan is getting married out in Traverse City in August up in Leelanau. The talk is trying to get dad up there. But it is a huge, huge undertaking. It’s not just like you get on a plane and go. It’s a tough chore.”

Moving forward, the Howes haven’t decided if their dad should endure another stem-cell treatment.

“It was recommended that dad get one more treatment,” Mark said. “I think Murray’s planning on taking him back in June as was proposed to us, so I think that’s in the works. I think a lot of that depends on how much more he improves and gets better and strengthens. We just don’t know where this thing is going to go. There’s a million things that are out of our control, something else medically happens, there’s nothing you can do about that.”

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