This Sunday will be the first Father's Day in 56 years that Gordie Howe, 81, will be without his beloved wife, Colleen, who died March 6 of complications of Pick's Disease.
His son, former NHL star Mark Howe, now the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings, won't be with him Sunday, but other family members will. Mark recently returned to his suburban Philadelphia home after following the Red Wings through the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"In this business, the only holiday you get is Christmas -- Christmas Eve and Christmas Day -- and then it's back to work," Howe said with a wry chuckle. "I've been away for six weeks, so there's plenty to do around the house and then I've got to get down the (New Jersey) Shore and open up the summer house.
"Dad went to Las Vegas for the NHL Awards Show, then he's heading home and my brother Marty is taking him fishing for a few days. In early August, Marty, Dad and I are going up to Vancouver, where my father owns a piece of the (Western Hockey League's) Vancouver Giants. We've got a fishing vacation planned."
Pick's Disease rendered Colleen Howe silent for the last six years of her life and her illness took a toll on Gordie, who has for many years been the best ambassador any sport has ever had. Once the greatest player in the NHL, Howe acts like anything but a superstar, teasing young and old alike, remembering names and faces for years and making everyone he meets feel better about himself.
That's one of the traits Mark Howe admires most about his father. He says it's Gordie's way of giving back to the game that gave his family so much.
"This has been a pretty special life for all of us," Mark said about himself, his brothers Murray and Marty, and sister Cathy. "Gordie says the only way he can give back to the game is to make himself available to the people who keep our sport alive. I don't think there's ever been an athlete who is more accessible to the fans. That's his most enduring quality, the way he is with people. It's not a phony thing -- it's all natural. He loves to be around people.
"I've noticed that after people meet my dad, they never talk about the hockey player, they talk about Gordie the person that they met."
The Howe children rallied around their parents at the onset of Colleen's illness. Mark and Marty jumped in to straighten out some tangled financial affairs. Dr. Murray Howe, a radiologist, practices in nearby Toledo, Ohio, and helped with the medical issues. Mark's son, Travis, moved into his grandparents' home. It was just a matter of doing the right thing, doing things the way they were taught.
"Growing up, Marty and I had a lot of interest in sports," Mark said. "My sister and brother Murray were involved, but not to the same extent. My parents never pushed us toward sports, but they encouraged it because it helped develop character and learning how to work as a group. My parents' primary goal was raising a family and trying to instill their values and characteristics. They knew what they believed in and what they wanted for their children. We spent a lot of time together riding to rinks with my mom."
Mark said flying to Canada to join his father on a summer trip won't be a new experience. He used to do it every summer in his teens. "His dedication to the game was unmatched. I can't believe the conditions I watched him play through. He was hospitalized before our first Houston game with back spasms, in traction, and played that night. I watched him pass kidney stones at 9 a.m and play in a 4 p.m. game. He is, without a doubt, the toughest man I ever met in my life." "Gordie was affiliated with Eaton's (department stores) for many years, and every year he'd start in Nova Scotia and work his way west, visiting every Eaton's across Canada, signing autographs and talking to the fans. About two weeks into the trip I'd fly up and meet him in Winnipeg and we'd visit every store going west until we got to Victoria (B.C.). The trip ended with a golf tournament there. Then I'd catch a flight home."
Mark Howe remembers growing up in a home filled with love -- and rules. His parents were uncompromising when it came to how their children responded to others.
"There were two things we absolutely had to do," Mark said. "And that was say 'please' and 'thank you.' Sometimes today people laugh when I do it, but that was the way I was raised, to treat people with respect."
Another rule was to make their own way in the world -- don't trade on Dad's fame. Murray told NHL.com last year how his mother embarrassed him, at 10 years old, when he tried to get her to confirm to a bunch of strangers that he really was Gordie's son, as he had been bragging.
"Who are you? Get away from me," Colleen Howe responded.
"Mom and Dad never had to say a lot," Mark said. "Dad was about example. He had a million opportunities to say, 'I'm Gordie Howe,' and it would have opened doors for him, but that was never the case. He just feels like he's an ordinary person like everyone else. We learned to be humble and we learned that just because our name was Howe, it didn't mean diddly-squat."
Mark Howe remembered one of the sternest lessons about hockey his father ever gave him. It was delivered in an easy-going, friendly manner, but the advice was worth millions.
"We were playing together in Houston and I was young. I had been out with the guys the night before, had a few drinks and I was hurting that morning," he said. "Dad grabbed me and said, 'Look how these guys (don't) take care of themselves. At 31 they'll be done. If you want to play until you're 30 or 40, what you do now will determine your future.'
"His dedication to the game was unmatched. I can't believe the conditions I watched him play through. He was hospitalized before our first Houston game with back spasms, in traction, and played that night. I watched him pass kidney stones at 9 a.m and play in a 4 p.m. game.
"He is, without a doubt, the toughest man I ever met in my life."