Gordie Howe reportedly ill, still icon in Detroit as person and hockey legend

Amazingly, Gordie Howe's qualities as a person outweigh even his accomplishments as a hockey player.

Word went around town quickly Thursday when it was reported that Gordie Howe was ill.

You can cite all the machines and methods of the new mass communication that you may wish; twitters and teasers; you-tubes, my-tubes, their-tubes; car phones and ear implants and messages by satellite. But word still travels best as it always has, communication will always be just one person to another. As swiftly as the wind. And when the very few gods of our memories … the knights of our best instincts … are said to be ailing, or in trouble, the words move like lightning. In the fastest ways, as they always have.

Gordie Howe. Sick? Senile? Our champion suffering? John Wayne once said it on film; then Buddy Holly sang it.

That’ll be the day.


I met Gordie Howe on April 22, 1955. He was seated in his new white Oldsmobile convertible, outside Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Detroit’s east side, just north of Six Mile Road and east of Hoover. It was around 6:45 pm on a soft and beautiful Friday evening. Beside him in the Olds was his wife Colleen, pregnant with their second child, Mark.

I circled the car a couple of times, keeping a respectful distance, with a gang of kids behind me. I was seven years old, and I had my 1954-55 Topps Hockey Cards in hand, the whole Red Wings team stacked at the top with Howe on top of the top, of course. I used to read the Detroit News and Free Press and Times every day, studying the pictures that went with the sports stories. Yup, that was him all right. The Big Guy. My Dad said he had the best reflexes of any player in any sport, and I was pretty sure I understood what that meant. And I’d heard my Grandfather say Howe could have been the Heavyweight Champion of the World, greater than Rocky Marciano, and I understood that even better.

I approached the car, from the street side. The other guys, about ten or twelve of ‘em I guess, kept about ten feet back. They weren’t as sure as I was. The car was in front of our parish church. This was Detroit in the 1950s, and it was important to show respect. And besides … I could be correct, this might actually be … the great Gordie Howe.

I walked up to his door, and he lowered his window and looked down at me.

“Hi Gordie,” I said.

“How ya doin’?”

“Pretty good. You’re here for Marty Pavelich’s wedding rehearsal?”

“Yeah, we’re supposed to meet Marty and some of the guys here,” he said, looking around, “but I guess we’re early.”

“Yeah, I guess. Well … can I have your autograph?”

My Mom had given me a little blue spiral notebook before I left the house. I handed it to him, and he wrote his beautiful full page autograph with a pen he had in his pocket. By now the other kids, darn it, were pushing in behind me. I felt like saying “Hey, go get your own Red Wing.”

“This is my wife Colleen. What’s your name?” I told him, and after Howe did the introductions, he asked “Are those your hockey cards? Can we look at ‘em?”

“Sure.” I handed them over, and he started flipping through them, stopping at one card. “Honey,” he said to his wife, “there’s Goldham,” referring to a veteran Red Wings defenseman. She nodded. He studied a few more, and then said “Ya know, we’ve got a little boy at home who looks just like you.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow.” What could I have said? I was surprised, even shocked I guess. Gordie Howe had a kid who looked like ME? It turned out he was talking about their infant son Marty, who was about a year and a half back then. And quite a handsome child, if memory serves.

Other cars began showing up, tentatively slowing, and then parking in front of the church. And holy cow, it was like a reunion of the NHL All-Star team. First Red Kelly, Detroit’s Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. And then Ted Lindsay, captain of the Red Wings and the league’s perennial All-Star left winger. Plus the groom-to-be, Marty Pavelich, said by the News and Times and Free Press to be the best defensive forward in the game, the guy who often shadowed the hated Rocket Richard of the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens. These guys, the great Red Wings of Detroit, had just won their latest Stanley Cup, their fourth in six years, on April 14, only eight days before.

I pointed out each arriving player to the guys in our autograph-seeking entourage … “there’s Lindsay” … “that’s Kelly,” I said, pointing. “Get him.” And they’d take off running, leaving me to hang outside the driver’s door with my new pal, Gordie Howe. I wanted them gone. I mean, Gordie was talking to me – he even had a kid at home who looked just like me! Something was in the works here. And, besides, he had my hockey cards. Heck, friendships, even marriages, have sometimes resulted from less than that.

My suspicions were just about proved the next day, when the Pavelich marriage spilled out onto the large concrete apron in front of our church, and Red Wings like legendary goaltender Terry Sawchuk and Tony Leswick and Sid Abel and Marcel Pronovost and Johnny Wilson and Glen Skov – cripes, just about the whole team! – milled around, eventually coming up to talk to Gordie; and be introduced to ME. Yup, that’s correct.

Just as on rehearsal night, I’d been about the first kid at the wedding that next morning. And when groomsman Howe came out of the church after the ceremony, I tugged at his coat and said “Hey Gordie … remember me?”

Well, not only did he recall me, he swung me up with his powerful hands, flipping me around and seating me on his shoulders. And it was from that perch, looking out at the world from over Gordie Howe’s head, that I was introduced to guys like Sawchuk and team general manager Jack Adams and coach Jimmy Skinner. What a ride. ME … on Gordie Howe’s shoulders, feeling like the luckiest kid in Detroit. Because that is surely what I was, on that glorious and warm April Saturday morning. April 23, 1955. A day when all seemed well with the world.


That was a while, seemingly several lifetimes, ago. Nearly everything has changed in the wash of time since that day. One thing that has not, and which will stay etched in the minds of Detroiters as long as hockey is remembered in our city, is the pristine quality of the reputation and character of Gordie Howe. Not just because he is hockey’s greatest player of all time (the back of the hockey card I showed him that day, on the rear of his own card, it said “Regarded by many experts as the greatest hockey player of all-time,” after only eight seasons and 26 years of age), but Howe – our legendary village champion – eventually came to mean more to us in a hundred splendid ways over the current 84 years of his life.

His personal quality has exceeded his athletic talent; an almost impossible task.

Yes, Gordie Howe was sick Thursday. Word of creeping dementia, the horror of old age, was made known to the general public. Any illness, just as any injury to him as a player, always seemed a shock when it involved Howe. Someday, sometime soon, his marvelous earth journey will end … and that — in the screen words of John Wayne — will be the day. He will join his beloved Colleen, who succumbed to a similar disease just a few years ago. But we needn’t mourn his eventual passage, because the last thing he said to me back then was that his newest goal is to rejoin the love of his life on that beckoning Other Side. He still lives his life for others, but now he wishes to go.

And for the many who cherish Gordie, we can hold him in our hearts as always; our city’s forever hero. We can celebrate that flicker of brilliance and goodness that shine from his soul.

For Thursday only proved what we longtime Detroiters have come to know, and to hold close, over the days and decades he has – thank God – been among us.

Because what is true in February, 2012, is as true as it was in April of 1955. A special athlete and golden man has graced our times, our place. And when Gordie Howe is sick, our city catches its breath.

We are thankful, and we remember.

10 replies on “Gordie Howe reportedly ill, still icon in Detroit as person and hockey legend

  • Randy

    I met Mr. Howe around 1994 when i was 10 or so. I didn’t know a lot about hockey or even who Gordie Howe was at the time. We were at the airport in Traverse City around Thanksgiving to pick up some relatives from Florida. My Grandpa introduced me to this older fella that he was talking for like 20 minutes. It was Gordie Howe. So we talked for a minute or two Gordie poked fun at my having long hair called me a little girl or something like that, great sense of humor and was one of the nicest guys i’d ever met. This began my love for hockey. My Grandpa explained the magnitude of the person i had just met, The greatest hockey player ever, which i was a huge sports fan as a little kid (still am) so I understood that it was a major deal. I read every book i could find about Gordie any video anything really started watching Detroit Red Wings games. (at the time I was really into basketball and the pistons)
    I had ran into him the next year at the airport and talked to him again, he rememberd me and even commented on my new haircut, haha. Gordie will always be and has always been my favorite player even though i have never seen him play other than on old videos. To read this article and learn something like this about your one of your heros is saddening, The only thing i can do keep you in my heart Gordie, everytime i play pickup hockey with my little bro, or everytime i turn on the Wings you’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.

  • Dick Hamlet

    The article mentioned hockey cards. My guess is, all the pictures were taken in NY when the teams visited, since they were all wearing dark and the Rangers wore white. What I thought was goofy then was, there were no cards with the Leafs or Canadians. I met Gordie Howe on several occasions over the years and he was always very gracious. He was my hero as a kid and to this day, I think he was the best.

  • Rick Roenicke

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Howe years ago at a new store opening. I asked him to sign a baseball for me. He laughed until I said I bet he had signed millions of pucks but how many baseball’s? He laughed again and said your right. Not that it has to be said but a true sports icon and even better gentleman. God bless.

  • Meg

    My mother-in-law had a fun encounter with Gordie on an airplane. She recalls that she was sitting to a very nice looking man who mentioned that he played hockey. She said, “Oh, my sons like hockey.” She said that she had a nice conversation with him. She mentioned this meeting to my husband, then a child, and she said, “I think his name was Howe.” He about fell over! She didn’t get his autograph because she didn’t know who he was.
    I am so sorry to hear of his illness. I pray that he is able to enjoy his family as long as he can and that they are able to find peace knowing his true greatness lies in them.

  • eugene munn

    well said….in fact,very well said…my dear mother did the same at Gesu church in the university district. believe in her case it was Ted Lindsys’ wedding…my great uncle nick wagener sat behind the bench for all home games and was a close personal friend of Jack Adams and the team doc.drinking buddies as well..I have my own selfish memories of Gordie,a wonderful man..we would all do well to follow his example …,many feel as if we are losing a family member..he will most certainly leave a hole in our hearts,..as kids we used to fight as to who was going to be gordie in a pick-up pond hockey game…mom passed last year,but one momento she left to me was her small spiralled notebook full of red wing autographs …cherrished memiries indeed !!!

  • Ted Werner

    Gordie sick? I was watching the Wings game from Vancouver two nights ago and they acknowledged Number 9 was in the crowd. There was Gordie looking great as ever having to respond gracefully to the standing ovation he received. There is only one Number 9!!!

  • Jen

    Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories. It’s great to read something that celebrates one of the greatest ambassadors of hockey and of the city of Detroit. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Howe family.

  • Judith Llewellyn Soper

    I just wanted to express my love for Gordie and the Red Wings and the Detroit that I remember and loved so well. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s couldn’t have been the same any where else on earth. I’ve been gone since ’90 but my car still bears the Red Wings sticker and always will, way out here in the west. May God be with you, Gordie!

  • tony aguirre

    hard to believe a sickness is beating the great gordie howe! i used to watch gordie at the olympia stadium back in the late 60″s &70″suntil they tore it down. god bless you gordy 4 all the memories of kicking some ass & playing like the champion that you are! i live in montana and still watch the wings. GO REDWINGS & GORDY HOWE.

  • T

    Hi Gordie. I know you have the best of doctors looking after you. I have lost a lot of my memory due to heart disease and a few heart failures. There are some great herbal treatments out there for memory recollection if you chose that, but I think you will be around for quite some time knowing you. I remember meeting you and Ted when you guys used to sit in regular ol’ general admission seats. We would come and say hi, talk a little hockey and be happy to tell our friends we saw you at the game. Hang in there pal. You gotta watch your boys win a Cup for you.

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