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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking care of Mr. Hockey

At 86 and slowed by dementia, Gordie Howe rarely sits still for his children

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At 86 and slowed by dementia, Gordie Howe rarely sits still for his children.

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At 86 and slowed by dementia, Gordie Howe rarely sits still for his children.

DETROIT -- The fishing trips always bring out that smile his sons love and cherish.

Gordie Howe never was one to sit around, and that hasn't changed even as dementia roils his health. He turned 86 on Monday, an event that was appropriately celebrated in Detroit, because no city ever has celebrated Howe more. He reigned here as a hockey folk hero for three decades, defining what it meant to be talented and tough.

Howe doesn't come to Detroit a whole lot any more, because he cannot be on his own. He has spent the past four months in Lubbock, Texas -- staying with his daughter, Cathy, and her husband, Bob -- escaping the harsh winter that would have impeded his physical activity. The man who six decades ago dominated opponents in hockey remains a man who doesn't like to be still.

Keeping Howe active can be as simple as buying a rake, but there's nothing better than getting him onto a body of water.

"We try to make it fun for dad, and that means fishing," Mark Howe said Sunday. Mark is a scout for the Red Wings, having played defence for them late in a career that led to a Hall of Fame induction in 2011, 39 years after his dad. Gordie Howe had three sons and a daughter with Colleen Howe, his wife of 55 years who passed away five years ago from Pick's disease, a neurological condition that causes dementia.

Howe's children have looked after him in shifts since Colleen's death. Marty, who also played in the NHL, does most of the professional planning, like a potential upcoming charity appearance in Calgary, Alta. Murray, a radiologist in Toledo, is in charge of the medical care. Gordie spends summers with Mark, who lives halfway between Philadelphia and New York and has another home near the Jersey shore, making for easy access to the activity that has defined the Howes' lives as much as hockey.

"Dad used to take Marty and I fishing when we were kids," Mark said. "We'd go fishing in Michigan and southern Ontario. He took us on trips down to Ecuador and to Florida with friends. We'd go deep-sea fishing and fish for Arctic char in northern Canada, or for walleye or sea bass. We've done a lot of fishing together with Dad.

"Growing up in Saskatoon, Dad always used to tell us he'd run down to the river and get some wooden handmade lures, and he'd catch northern pike all day. He always loved and still loves fishing."

His sons -- Marty lives outside Hartford, Conn., and often in the summer will take Howe fishing on Long Island Sound -- have grown accustomed to what comes after a fishing trip with their dad. "I can take him out fishing for tuna on a beautiful night," Mark said, "and the next day he'll remember he went fishing, but not if he caught anything, or what boat he was on."

Like his siblings, Mark has a daily habit when he is hosting his dad. When Howe wakes in the morning, Mark asks: Do you know the names of your children?

"When I had him for three months last summer," Mark said, "there were only two days he couldn't name all four of us."

Remembering in the morning doesn't mean Howe will remember later in the day. Mark recounted having his dad for a week this past Christmas and taking him to scout an Islanders game. "Halfway through the first period, he asked, 'Where's Mark?' You smile and ask, 'What did you say?' And then he realizes you are there with him, and he says, 'Oh, I must have gotten hit in the head too often.' He realizes what he asks."

Howe's awareness of the immediate is acute. "He knows if people are talking about him, if he hears people being sarcastic about him," Mark said.

When Howe and Ted Lindsay were to drop the puck for the 2014 Winter Classic second alumni game this past New Year's Eve, Howe rejected the help offered by Mark and Steve Yzerman.

"He was irritated with me for trying to help and gave me a nasty look," Mark said.

It stung, but also swelled Mark's heart. Because Howe didn't shoot a dirty look at Yzerman. Howe knew which man was his son and which man was a fellow Wings legend.

"He's giving me dirty looks, and that was his pride factor," Mark said. "He was telling me, 'I don't need to be helped.' It was a little bit of aggression, but I'm glad that Dad knows the difference between me and Stevie and only got mad at me. And 30 seconds later, it was forgotten. It's not his nature."

Howe began his professional hockey career 70 years ago with a failed attempt at making the New York Rangers. A year later, he caught on with the Wings, for whom he made his debut Oct. 16, 1946. He would go on to be a four-time Stanley Cup champion, six-time Art Ross Trophy winner, six-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, and 23-time NHL All-Star.

The pride Howe had in his professional career now manifests itself in his desire to remain useful to his children.

"He wants to feel like he's needed and wanted," Mark said. "His nature is, he's always given. He feels horrible if you're working and he's not doing anything."

On bad days, when Howe naps for hours at a time, he will wake up and see Mark waxing his car and want to help.

"It's just not safe," Mark said. "So you switch jobs. A couple of years ago, I took him to Home Depot, and we bought a rake. And he spent the next seven hours raking my lawn. He's still a horse that way. He was doing something that he knew was helping me out.

"He's a caring and loving parent, giving to his child, and this is how he does it nowadays. I'm glad it's still there, because that's him. That's what you cherish, when you know he knows he is helping you, and he's having fun, and you see him smile."

 

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2014 A1

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