Mark and Gordie Howe pose with the Stanley Cup when Mark joined his father as a member of the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 2011. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
It is not always easy to be a son, let alone the son of a famous man.
But when a son pours his life into pursuing the profession of a legendary father, it is even tougher.
That Mark Howe, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, reached the sixth decade of life and Gordie Howe his ninth while remaining confidantes, friends, colleagues and loving son and father is no small achievement.
Among his many attributes, Mark Howe is remarkably successful. He credits his parents, Colleen and Gordie Howe.
“I think a lot of it was the player dad was, but more so the example he was as a person, along with mother,” said Howe, 59, chief professional scout for the Red Wings.
“They taught us the right way, but they led by example. I think that had a great influence on all of the children.”
In a book of considerable detail and eloquent sentiment, Howe reveals how Coleen, Gordie and the kids worked, lived and loved on the way to becoming the “First Family of Hockey” and the brood perhaps closest to royalty in Michigan throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Despite his own considerable achievement, including as arguably the best two-way defenseman of the 1980s, when it came time to pick the title of his autobiography, his co-author, Jay Greenberg, writes that Howe told him, “How about just calling it ‘Gordie Howe’s Son.’ That’s who I am and who I always will be.”
Howe asks and answers the salient question associated with his life in a simple 29-word paragraph, the second in the book.
In doing so, Howe expresses what many sports fans of a certain age in Michigan have believed for decades: There is no simpler wisdom than that expressed by the Howes, the olden truths of humility, honest work, compassion and good humor, embodied by the great patriarch and furthered by an indomitable matriarch.
“Interviewers have asked, ‘What’s it like being Gordie Howe’s son?’ ” Howe wrote. “I’ve always assumed it was no different than being anybody’s son who grew up in a loving, supportive family.”
Learning on your own
The striking thing is how hands-off Colleen and Gordie Howe were as parents. Mark and his siblings understood they were responsible. It helped to observe the example of their parents, but there was a wide berth.
“Whatever pressure we felt came only from within,” Howe wrote.
“When Dad would attend our games, he would just watch, never yell or second-guess the coaching or do any of the things other parents would do. There wasn’t a lot of unsolicited advice from him or from my mom.
“Basically, you learned to do everything on your own, and when you had questions, they always were there with the answers.”
One answer, in particular, resonated.
Taunted repeatedly, especially at rinks where he spent countless hours, about being “the son of ... ” Howe asked his mother about coping.
“You have to learn to let it go in one ear and out the other,” she said. “It’s what it is, learn to accept it.
“Maybe there’s a negative side with all the attention you get. But let me make a list of all of the positive things, like being able to go down to Olympia and skate for 6-8 hours. You can say, ‘I’m Gordie Howe’s son,’ and go any place in that building you want.”
When allowed to stay up late after home games, Howe also soaked up all the conversation around the family table, where Red Wings like Bill Gadsby and Bob Baun held court.
His mother later told him it was clear that by age nine, Howe was preparing himself to play in the NHL.
But hockey was not the only lesson taught in the household, first in Lathrup Village and then Bloomfield Hills.
As a boy, he was not so much told to work hard and remain humble as he was privy to cases in point, including witnessing the man many consider the greatest hockey player in history do the housework.
“When he wasn’t traveling, my father did what had been expected of him since he was a kid: helping cook and clean,” Howe wrote. “Even after he could afford to do so, Dad wouldn’t pay people to do work on the house that he could perform himself.”
It prepared Howe for adolescence in what was then called the Ontario Hockey Association, a foremost junior hockey league in Canada.
That Howe and his brother Marty played for the lordly Toronto Marlboros increased the pressure. But they prevailed.
“When you prove something to yourself, in general you’re also proving it to other people, which helps you become accepted,” Howe wrote. “So does keeping your mouth shut until you’ve established your worth, which is the way I had been brought up.”
Before Mark, Marty and Gordie signed with the Houston Aeros of the nascent World Hockey Association in 1973, Mark, 18, was concerned about leaving Detroit, the impact on his dream of playing in the NHL and all the money the Aeros offered.
A total of $500,000, and a $125,000 signing bonus was $25,000 more than the Red Wings of the Bruce Norris era ever paid his father.
Instead of promenading like a modern bonus baby, Howe was concerned.
“That was the problem,” he wrote. “I wanted to make sure I was ready to earn that kind of money.”
The older Howe, then retired, and never a bonus baby, set things straight.
“The only way you get better is if you play against people better than yourself,” Howe told his son. “I know what these leagues are like, and I have seen you play. You’re fine. You’re not going to have a problem.”
Assuaged, the son said, “OK.”
Then, Gordie Howe asserted his endearing, playful sarcasm.
“And, if you don’t want to sign, I’ll break your arm and sign it for you,” he said.
As unusual at it might seem for a hockey player to talk about a person’s “grace,” it is a word Howe employs several times throughout the 300-page book to describe what is perhaps his father’s finest attribute, the elegance that somehow attached to the nearly dirt-poor, mildly-dyslexic man on the Saskatchewan prairie and in what was then the small city of Saskatoon.
What was it like playing professional hockey with your dad, a mythic figure in the game who launched a comeback with a 100-point season in the WHA two years after his retirement from the Red Wings at age 45? A lot of fun, by and large.
“Thanks to his always incredible grace, having your father as your work and travel mate never became awkward,” Howe wrote.
“In one of the very few unsolicited pieces of advice Dad ever gave me, he said, ‘I know you are only 18, but you need to figure out how long you want to play this game. The way you take care of yourself is going to make a difference. These guys leading a harder life at 27, 28, 29, their careers are going to be over when they hit 31 or 32, and their marriages soon after.’
“But I never felt I was being watched or that I couldn’t be myself. Or that I felt obligated to spend time with a lonely old man on the road.”
Meanwhile, Coleen accustomed her sons to the practicalities of life.
The Howes purchased a colonial home in Houston and set up camp. Colleen told her son his rent was $250 per month.
Howe knew it was intended as instruction. But having borrowed money from his parents for a snow blower nearly a decade earlier to start a lucrative one-boy snow removal business around their neighborhood — and having made good money and paid back the loan promptly — Howe thought it unnecessary.
“So did I really need that lesson reinforced by my landlord mother?” he wrote. “Mom countered with an offer for me to buy the groceries instead. I chose the rent.
“Colleen Howe didn’t raise a dummy — I knew how much I ate.”
The hardcover book was published with Mark Howe in his Flyers uniform on the cover. In paperback, to be released in October, the cover will bear a photograph of him in his Red Wings jersey.
The details of the Howes’ lives are compelling. But Mark Howe’s career, itself, makes it worth the read.
■He is the youngest player to win an Olympic medal in hockey, having won a silver at age 16 for the USA at the 1972 Sapporo Games.
■He was MVP in the Memorial Cup tournament, the championship of junior hockey in Canada.
■He played 16 seasons in the NHL and six in the WHA.
■He was a first team All-Star once in the WHA and three times in the NHL, and played in the NHL All-Star Game five times.
■As a defenseman in the NHL, he had 742 points, 197 goals and 545 assists in 929 regular-season games.
■A three-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy, he also played in three Stanley Cup Finals, two with the Flyers and one with the Red Wings.
In the forward to the book, Wayne Gretzky writes, “There are people who say Mark’s natural talent might have been greater than his dad’s.”
Howe writes about his years in Philadelphia, including multiple appearances in the playoffs against the Rangers, throughout the 1980s, and arriving in Detroit in 1991 to find the team fractured by cliques and not playing up to his standards. As a leader, he would help change that as the Red Wings segued to Stanley Cup winners.
His perspective on the intensity of coaches like Scotty Bowman in Detroit and Mike Keenan in Philadelphia is instructive. While other players objected, and he even was approached to enlist in a mutiny against Keenan, Howe remained stalwart and said both coaches lifted his game.
“I was always brought up with the philosophy of no matter how wrong the coach is, he is right,” Howe said. “You know, they’re the boss.
“Scotty was never in your face, unless you wanted to go up there and confront him.”
Howe also details one of the goriest injuries in the history of the NHL, when he nearly was incapacitated — as his father had a generation before — with a massive head injury after he flew headfirst into the boards.
Just after Christmas in 1980, Howe slid into a net and impaled himself on the pointed metal centerpiece, which was then attached to the back of the nets to knock pucks down so goal judges and referees could more easily observe whether goals were scored.
“Had the flange come in perfectly straight, it would have gone into my spinal cord, probably putting me in a wheelchair for the rest of my days,” he wrote. “The sphincter muscle was only slightly torn, saving me a life sentence with a colostomy bag. My hamstring, which could have been severed to end my career, was missed completely, too, and my rectum.”
After losing 3½ pints of blood and undergoing two hours of surgery, doctors said he would play again. But, for the healing to start, Howe needed to get out of bed and get moving.
“Grab onto me,” his father said at his bedside.
“I’m going to get sick all over you,” Howe replied.
“That’s OK,” his father said. “Do what you need to do. The doctor wants you on your feet.”
“He held me as I spewed all over him,” Howe wrote. “I don’t know what the ultimate expression of love is, but letting an adult vomit on you would be near the top of my list.”