By this time the awkward Romeo had been in Detroit for six seasons, played in five All-Star Games, seen his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, led the league in scoring twice and just been named MVP for the first time. He was a dark-haired, square-jawed, big-shouldered, dangerously handsome brute who could stickhandle through a mob of Maple Leafs and then delicately flip the puck into the net. But with Colleen, he was milking the aw-shucks thing for all it was worth, and it worked to perfection on a young woman who had never witnessed a hockey game.
Their backgrounds were disparate. His dad drove a tractor on his farm in Saskatchewan. Her father played the trombone in the Benny Goodman Orchestra. From the moment Colleen agreed to marry Gordie, he would defer to her superior intelligence. "Girls have more time to think," says Mr. Hockey. "They're not whacking each other over the head."
It would be another decade before the Howes knew for sure how ruthlessly he was being robbed by Red Wings management, though Colleen had long suspected as much. A defenseman named Bob Baun, who was traded to Detroit in 1968, broke the NHL's code of silence and told Gordie over drinks one night that he was earning twice as much as Gordie was. "I said, 'Oh, Jesus.' I believed him, but what could you say?" says Gordie. "Back then nobody was making much money. Our money from one season was gone before the next."
He went home, and Colleen said, "I told you so." She and Gordie flew to Fort Lauderdale to confront Bruce Norris, who owned the team. Gordie recalls Norris saying, "Oh! All right then—we'll sign you for two years at $75,000!" Eventually Mrs. Hockey nudged the Red Wings to raise Mr. Hockey's salary toward $100,000.
TO HIS GRANDCHILDREN, GORDIE HOWE IS SIMPLY PeePaw. "I think he's learned a lot about himself the last two years," Cathy says. "He had more strength and more intelligence than anyone gave him credit for. Can he live without her? I hope so. Every one of us said, 'Dad, move in with us.' And he said, 'No. This is my home.'"
"I think at times he's scared," says Murray, "wondering what's going to happen when she's gone. He'll have to redefine his life, but he's not one to show fear. Pity is the last thing he wants. He'll want to be seen as another kind of role model—an ideal spouse in time of need and an ideal widower who wants to go on and not give up. When she's gone, he said he wants to keep going out and touch as many lives as possible."
In Montana, with the first snow of winter on the ground, Cathy has one last story to share, a tale from when her daughter Jade was very young. She told Gordie once, "PeePaw, I'm going to marry a man like you when I grow up."