From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 11, 2002
SLIDING TOWARD A SHADOWED PLACE where light and hope cannot reach her, a woman sits in a padded chair, and a small black dog licks her hand. There is a toddler's safety gate at the top of the basement stairs, and every door that leads outside is equipped with an alarm, not to keep intruders away from the home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a leafy suburb of Detroit, but to keep the woman inside during the dislocated wanderings that are a consequence of her terrible, wasting affliction. The man of the house—one of the paramount athletes of the 20th century, an icon of humility and patience—is as stricken as his dying wife, and already feels her loss. "If missing someone is love," says Gordie Howe, "then that's what it is."
Colleen Joffa Howe has Pick's disease, a lesser-known form of dementia comparable with Alzheimer's in its inexorable destruction of the mind, yet specific in the portions of the brain it attacks. There is no cure. Colleen is 69, and had this misfortune not befallen her, early next year she would have been leading her Hall of Fame husband toward a cluster of milestones: her 70th birthday in February, his 75th in March, their golden anniversary in April.
Now that cavalcade of happiness will not occur. After years of private sorrow, the Howes—Gordie, sons Marty, 48, Mark, 47, and Murray, 42, and daughter Cathy Purnell, 43—have decided that the time has come to publicly close ranks with the millions of other families whose elders have faded into the same unreachable dimness. "It's one of those things that always happens to someone else," says Marty. "Until it happens to you."
For at least the past year, Gordie was his wife's sole caregiver—preparing her meals and medication, shepherding her through her wanderings, waking in terror at the sound of those door alarms. (With the disease rapidly progressing, a nurse now helps him three days a week for four hours each day.) The little teacup poodle named Rocket, after Gordie's nemesis on the Montreal Canadiens, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, was once her joy and companion. But now, says Gordie, "it's just a dog."
Colleen Howe was one of the first women to demand and win a place at the money tables of major league sports. Twenty-nine years ago, as one of America's first female player agents, she negotiated the package that brought Gordie out of his early retirement—he was only 45!—and teamed him on the ice with Marty and Mark in the World Hockey Association for the happiest seasons of Gordie's career. She raised and chauffeured four athletic children and arranged her husband's every personal appearance, every grand tour, as well as hundreds of acts of public and secret charity, leaving the man his mates called Power free to rearrange the scoring records of the NHL and the facial bones of his opponents.
"She fought as diligently as any agent I've ever worked with, in sports or Hollywood," says Howard Baldwin, who was president of the WHA's Whalers when Colleen negotiated the move of Gordie, Marty and Mark to that team from the Aeros in 1977. During those negotiations Baldwin, now a film producer in California, flew to Michigan, where Colleen had purchased a small ranch and was raising exotic livestock. "There she was, out in the middle of a field, feeding llamas," Baldwin recalls. "I got attacked by a goat as I walked out there. We went at it until two in the morning, but we got the deal done."
Shrewd and visionary, Colleen even had Gordie's name trademarked, as well as their sobriquets: Mr. and Mrs. Hockey. For this relentless drive and ambition, she was ridiculed. "She got angry at the walls that were built up," Cathy recalls. "But she said, 'Well, I'll just pull 'em down!'"
"I used to hear people say, 'Your mom's butting into your dad's business,'" Mark says. "Well, after he retired, the NHL wanted him to go everywhere for nothing. Mom said, 'Gordie's not going anywhere unless he gets paid.' People said, 'That's horses—,' but she stood her ground because that's how he made his living."