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Colleen Howe still breaking barriers, considered for Hall

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
The Howes, from left: Mark, Colleen, Marty, and Gordie have a family discussion after a practice with the Houston Aeros in 1974.

Detroit – As a hockey mom, Colleen Howe traveled early and far looking for ice for her boys.

Her husband, Gordie, had plenty of it at the Olympia. But she raised her oldest sons, Marty and Mark, at a time when hockey was still something folks in the United States mostly watched Canadians do.

Even in the Detroit area there wasn’t much ice indoors, in the early 1960s.

“The first year we played, you played outdoors at Butzel,” said Mark Howe, the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“If it snowed, you were shoveling.”

Howe said she talked to her husband about it. They got some other couples together and built Gordie Howe Hockeyland, in St. Clair Shores.

“She put her home up for collateral to help build the first private hockey rink in Detroit,” Gordie Howe said, in “and… Howe!” a 1995 memoir. Howe failed to mention it was his home, too.

“That started the many thousands of other rinks to be developed, which opened up the facilities for American players,” he said.

It was not all the woman some called “Mrs. Hockey” would do, before her death, from Pick’s disease, in 2009.

When no junior-A team was available locally, Howe founded one and ran it, serving as general manager for three seasons.

When age limits made it impossible for Gordie, Mark and Marty to play together in the NHL she got them ground-breaking contracts in the World Hockey Association.

Howe was married to one member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. She raised another.

There is a chance she will be a member, too.

Some think Howe should be the first woman “builder” in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The category honors, “Coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.”

So far, there are no “hers.” Of the 102 inducted “builders,” all are men.

Nominations for the 2017 class, from members of the Selection Committee, were due April 15.

Supporters are working on her behalf.

“Since Dad died, the Howe family is focused on continuing the legacy of our parents,” Mark Howe said, including furthering the work of The Howe Foundation, which his mother founded, and securing a home for his father’s memorabilia.

“Someone is using our name to solicit some people, because you have to be nominated for the Hall of Fame. I guess what we’ve done is to put the ball in someone else’s corner and let them take it from there.

“I’ve never promoted myself or my parents. That’s not the way we were brought up.”

They were brought up by a mother who provided for them and ran the family and the business affairs, while her husband played hockey and provided a consummate example of manhood, humility and how a professional prepares and behaves, according to his children.

“Back in the ’50s and early ’60s, a lot of U.S. kids wanted to play indoor hockey, but there just wasn’t ice,” Colleen Howe said, in the family memoir.

“I crossed the border into Windsor at three or four in the morning just to get an hour of ice at the old Windsor Arena, or any facility east on Highway 401 leading to Toronto.”

‘Frigid’ State Fairgrounds

In those days, the Detroit Skating Club met in a cattle storage area, with a leaky roof, at the State Fairgrounds.

“It was frigid in there,” Howe said in the memoir. “You may as well have been outside.”

A small indoor rink, Winter Wonderland, on the West Side, was perhaps the only hockey surface with walls and roof, other than the Olympia.

The Howes and five other area families got together, raised some money and hired some contractors. Gordie Howe Hockeyland rose on Harper.

Colleen Howe, the wife of hockey great Gordie and one of the first female sports agents, died on March 6, 2009. She was 76.

“It made a tremendous, tremendous difference,” said Dave DenBaas, 81, of St. Clair Shores, who coached in the rink beginning in 1965.

DenBaas’s family is still involved with the St. Clair Shores Hockey Association.

“I practiced a lot of teams outdoors,” DenBaas said. “But Gordie Howe Hockeyland furthered, especially high school hockey, in St. Clair Shores.”

For the Howes, the financing was the hard part.

“Believe it or not, we signed away our homes to do it (not too bright),” Colleen Howe said in the memoir. “But we never gave it a second thought.

“It’s funny the things that you’ll do that maybe doesn’t make good financial sense, but need, belief and hard work makes them work.”

She saw the need for junior-A hockey, too, and made it work.

Outgrown competition

With Marty and Mark having outgrown the local competition at age 14 and 15, she preferred that they not separate from the family and move to Canada to continue hockey. Instead, meeting frequently with the Red Wings brass, she persuaded them to help start the junior-A team.

Howe hired a coach, Carl “Coach” Lindstrom, who became a legend in amateur hockey, and she served as general manager.

“She spearheaded things,” Mark Howe said.

“It provided an opportunity. I think we had close to 12 or 13 kids off that team get scholarships for colleges.

“A couple of them played maybe a couple of years for minor league hockey.”

She also jump started her sons’ professional careers and resurrected her husband’s.

Mr. and Mrs. Hockey, Gordie and Colleen Howe at Joe Louis Arena in 2001.

With relations between the Red Wings and Gordie Howe increasingly strained early in his retirement, and Marty and, especially, Mark proving to be pretty good players, thoughts of playing together percolated.

But Gordie was 45 and Marty and Mark were 19 and 18, and the NHL would not draft players under age 20.

Working undercover to hide her intentions, Howe discovered the new World Hockey Association had no such limit, contrary to belief.

“Now,” she said, “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

One night, as she accepted congratulations for her sons’ play in junior hockey from the management of the Houston Aeros, Howe played her card.

She mentioned it was too bad her boys could not play in the WHA because the eligibility rules were the same — or, were they?

“I learned a long time ago in my career that to get hockey people to do something you’ve thought of, it is best to merely plant a seed of information with them so they believe they thought of it themselves,” Howe said, in the memoir. “Then let them take the credit.”

Bill Dineen, a former Stanley Cup-winning teammate of her husband and general manager of the Aeros, did his own homework on the rules and kept the lack or regulation under wraps.

“I just wish I could have been there for the WHA draft in Winnipeg,” she said, in the memoir. “It must have been exciting.

“Like an atom bomb going off.”

As the Aeros started selecting the Howes, managers and other executives started pounding tables saying they players were under age.

Dineen smiled.

Howe had created the opportunity for her husband to play with her sons, for her sons to begin professional careers early, while providing the WHA a leg up on legitimacy and a brilliant marketing opportunity.

She then negotiated a $125,000 contract for her 18-year-old son, three seasons after her husband retired making $100,000 for the Red Wings.

“She could be tough,” Mark Howe said. “No doubt about it.

“She was a forceful person and she didn’t quit until she got what she wanted.

“A lot of people think, it was my father, Gordie Howe, and that’s how I got where I was,” Howe said. “But I’ve always given my mom more credit.

“She definitely was the foundation of so much of what I’ve been able to achieve in my lifetime.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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