The old man in the front row

Gordie Howe Detroit Red Wings

Detroit hockey legend Gordie Howe saw his son Mark inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this month.

There was enough emotion at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony last week in Toronto to fill Detroit’s old Olympia Stadium, even on those smoky nights at playoff time when the stairways and corners of the venerable Barn were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with raucous standing room-only crowds.

Though the prized honoree on this occasion was a marvelously talented forward-turned-defenseman whose love for the game took him from childhood attendance at those magical nights at the Olympia through a career that culminated with three seasons actually playing for the Red Wings in the 1990s … the focus of attention — and the object of a groundswell of affection on what was maybe the last of his own countless SRO nights — was a sad and sagging 83-year-old man who sat quietly, and alone, in the front row.

There was an empty seat next to Gordie Howe. And though that chair had previously held his son, Mark, who was onstage acknowledging his well-deserved induction into the Hockey Hall, the open space of it spoke volumes. The senior Howe, in spite of being literally surrounded by a crowd of children and grandchildren placed about him in the audience, sat in isolation. That seat, that empty chair, held the memory of his late wife Colleen, who died two years ago. And as always, as had been evidenced practically all through his adult life, she was much on his mind this special evening.

The tales of Gordie Howe’s allegiance and deference to his wife Colleen are legion among local hockey fans, and sometimes even take critical and controversial tones. Arguably the most dynamic and popular single figure in postwar Detroit sports history, Number Nine answered to only one person in his life. It wasn’t Jack Adams, the gruff Red Wings general manager who presented the phenomenal Howe to the world in the late 1940s and ’50s like he was the most prized of roses raised in Adams’ hockey garden. Gordie certainly didn’t take any orders or real direction from the parade of buffoons who signed his checks at the Detroit Hockey Club from 1946 to 1971. And he certainly never acquiesced to any other NHL player, rival or teammate, in his 32 years on the ice.

Hell, Gordie Howe in many ways WAS the NHL during his long prime. Just as he could outplay anyone on the ice for most of that time, he could outfight them as well. Only one person ever commanded his attention during his long reign, and Gordie was only too happy to bow to the wishes and demands of that benevolent dictator, whom he met and married here in 1953.

Some sportswriters, some players, even some friends were skeptical about the Howes’ relationship. How could the guy who was practically Detroit’s – and hockey’s – own version of Superman so totally defer his personal direction and decisions to … well … a woman? A Red Wings teammate who called Gordie in the late ’60s to inquire about the advantages of investing in cattle, as the Howes had done, was put on hold by Number Nine. “Let me get Colleen,” Gordie said, “she handles those things.” The annoyed player hung up.

None of the traditional macho styles of leadership in effect in those days meant anything to Gordie, or to his wife. When the Howe family made hockey – indeed sports – history by bringing Gordie out of retirement to play alongside Mark and his brother Marty in Houston at the origins of the World Hockey Association in 1974, it was Colleen who turned the trick, who called the business shots that resulted in their storybook adventure.

Gordie never made a secret of his allegiance and total devotion to Colleen. I worked with the Howes on a family biography in the mid 1990s, and when I was seriously ill in 2005 Gordie called me about my situation. We spoke of his wife, who was then in the throes of a terrible and fatal affliction called Pick’s Disease, that brings down its victims with a cruel form of dementia. He had no illusions. “If Colleen goes, I won’t be around for long,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be here without her. And I won’t be.”

And there he was in Toronto on Monday, being thanked by his son, celebrated – maybe for the last time – by the hockey world, surrounded by a large and loving family. And all alone. Seated next to that poignantly empty chair as his son spoke.

Mark Howe was a terrific hockey player, in some ways remindful of his dad. He knows more about pro hockey, and its players, and the various ways hockey is played, than anyone I have ever interviewed about the game. His elevation to the Hall of Fame was one of the last goals, one of the final dreams, of Gordie Howe’s life.

Gordie no longer cuts the dynamic and charismatic figure he once did as the king of his sport. He is no longer our village hero; the muscleman from Detroit who kept hockey fascinating and vibrant in the years before it exploded across the United States and world television screens. It was once said that the Original Six of the NHL consisted of Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Gordie Howe.

On Monday he was but a shadow of our fearsome and forever hero. He remains, as Mark so correctly pointed out, the greatest hockey player of all time. But he was just … a dad. And a widowed husband. Sitting alone in a crowd. Speaking, in his mind, with the partner who surely filled the empty seat by his side.

We will never see his like again. Never. Not as a player; not as a man. An informed cynic once said you should never meet your heroes, because they will inevitably disappoint you in some way. Such is the way of human nature. But Gordie Howe is bigger, and has stood for more, than can be confined by human nature.

Everyone should meet … I hope that you have met …. Gordie Howe.