Married to the hockey legend for 56 years, Colleen, also known as "Mrs. Hockey," had suffered since 2002 from Pick's Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that causes severe dementia.
"We extend our deepest condolences to Gordie, Mark, Marty, Cathy, Murray and the entire Howe family," Red Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch said in a statement released by the team. "Colleen was a pioneer hockey wife and hockey mom and devoted her entire life to the betterment of the game. She will be sincerely missed by us and all who knew her."
"The National Hockey League grieves the passing of Colleen Howe -- a formidable woman, the wife and partner of our iconic player, the matriarch of a remarkable hockey family," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "On behalf of generations of fans, we send our deepest condolences to Gordie and his loved ones."
"Obviously a great wife, a wonderful mother, a great hockey mother," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press. "Between her and Gordie, Mark and Marty, they were hockey's first family for a long, long time. A big loss."
Born on a farm in Sandusky, Mich., in 1933, Colleen Joffa met Gordie Howe at a Detroit bowling alley in 1950. They were married April 15, 1953, and had four children -- sons Mark, Marty and Murray, and daughter Cathy.
"She was one of the prettiest things I'd ever seen," Howe told the Vancouver Sun in a 2003 story. "Everyone kept telling me that when the right one came along it would hit you right between the eyes. Well, I got hit."
Colleen Howe was far from a typical 1950s stay-at-home mom. She took a proactive role in her husband's career and burgeoning legend. She managed his business interests, in the process becoming the first female sports agent. It was Colleen who put together the deal that allowed Gordie, at age 45 and two seasons after his NHL retirement, to join sons Mark and Marty with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.
"She fought as diligently as any agent I've ever worked with, in sports or Hollywood," Howard Baldwin said in a 2002 Sports Illustrated story. Baldwin was president of the WHA's New England Whalers when Colleen negotiated the move of Gordie, Marty and Mark to that team from the Houston Aeros in 1977.
Fiercely protective of her husband's interests, she had his name trademarked, as well as the titles "Mr. Hockey" and "Mrs. Hockey." Over the years she was pilloried for being intrusive, but she ignored all the criticism.
"She got angry at the walls that were built up," daughter Cathy said in the 2002 SI story. "But she said, 'Well, I'll just pull 'em down!'"
"I used to hear people say, 'Your mom's butting into your dad's business,'" Mark said. "Well, after he retired, the NHL wanted him to go everywhere for nothing. Mom said, 'Gordie's not going anywhere unless he gets paid.' People said, 'That's (expletive),' but she stood her ground because that's how he made his living."
Gordie never had a problem with what his wife did. He generally deferred to Colleen on most non-hockey-playing subjects, saying, "Girls have more time to think. They're not whacking each other over the head."
"My mom is a very assertive person, and off the rink, my dad is not," Murray Howe told NHL.com. "He is a quiet gentleman. He always knew he married well, so he would defer to her if she had laid down a law. He might have a discussion away from us, but he always honored her rules and her judgment. She is a strong, strong person -- and that's what my Dad needed, being in the public eye and away from home a lot."
"I got credit for a lot of things she made happen," Gordie told NHL.com. "She is very creative and did a hell of a lot for the family."
Colleen was more than just the wife of a hockey legend. Dissatisfied with the state of junior hockey while her children were growing up, she helped found the Detroit Junior Red Wings, the first Junior A hockey team in the U.S., and also helped develop the first indoor ice arena in Michigan -- fittingly named Gordie Howe Hockeyland. Detroit-area NHL products like Mike Modano have said they owe a great deal of their career to her efforts.
She later formed Power Play International, which managed the on- and off-ice business interests of herself, Gordie and her hockey-playing sons, Mark and Marty. She wrote three books -- "After the Applause," "My Three Hockey Players," and "and … HOWE!", and worked with Gordie to help raise millions of dollars for charity.
Colleen was named the Michigan Sportswoman of the Year in 1973. In 2001 she and Gordie received the Wayne Gretzky Award from the United States Hockey Hall of Fame for their contributions to hockey in the U.S.
Other business endeavors included owning a travel company, an Amway marketing company and a management consulting company. She became a life insurance agent and ran for the U.S. Congress when the family lived in Connecticut.
In a book published by the Red Wings in 2007 to honor Gordie. "Nine: A Salute to Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe", he wrote a dedication to his wife: "While I received the applause, you stood behind me and cheered the loudest. While I focused on improving my game, you made sure the bills were getting paid. 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."
As Colleen's health deteriorated over the years, Gordie tried to serve as caretaker, but her illness -- which is similar to Alzheimer's disease -- made it too difficult for him to do himself. He had visiting nurses stay with him to help; more recently Travis, Mark's son and Gordie and Colleen's oldest grandson, had moved in to assist Gordie and run the family business.
Colleen Howe is survived by her husband, four children, nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer