Mr. Hockey is introduced as the keynote speaker at the 19th annual dinner of the Transportation Club of Detroit. The fete is a gathering of railroad and trucking people at the sumptuous Dearborn Inn, near the Ford Motor Company headquarters. "They used to make us stay here during the playoffs," Gordie whispers as he walks into the hall. (Some coaches sequester players during the postseason to keep them focused.) "But I'd sneak out and go home anyway."
Inside the banquet hall, as the crowd presses forward, it's bobbleheads and bedlam. Some 40 years ago, when he was earning $30,000 a season as the most gifted and punishing forward in the NHL and the league's MVP, Gordie spent his summers traveling across Canada and signing autographs on behalf of Eaton's department stores. For this, he would earn an additional $10,000, enough to buy Colleen and the kids a summer cottage near Grayling, Mich., which he rarely had time to enjoy. Back then, in Moncton or Victoria or Port Arthur, he would begin signing autographs in the stores before seven in the morning and not cease until the dark of night. A smile, a story, a memory for everyone.
An adulatory biographical film—conceived by Mrs. Hockey as part of Gordie's 65th-birthday celebration in 1993—is shown to the crowd. Then he moves to the podium. "One pair of pants, one shirt, nine kids, a father on a tractor," Gordie tells his audience, encapsulating his prairie origins. "But rich in friendship."
He moves on to an anecdote about how Colleen—"a lady who has been my leader"—pulled off the brilliant triple play that brought Gordie and teenagers Marty and Mark to the WHA's Aeros in 1973. Gordie, who had retired from the Red Wings two years earlier, didn't see it coming. "She did a lot of things without my knowledge," he says about Colleen. "I guess she knew I'd say yes anyway."
Houston went on to win two league championships and then bit the Texas dust in 1978, leading to the Howes' signing with the Whalers. After that season the NHL absorbed four WHA teams, including the Whalers, and Gordie wound up playing on a line with Bobby Hull and Dave Keon—three old goats with 2,000 pro goals among them and a combined age of more than 130. But that was long ago. and now lie begins to tell the audience about Colleen's illness, and the loneliness, and the pain. "I had a lot of knocks, and this is the biggest one I ever had," he says.
His voice wavers, but he goes on to describe for the gathering how shy he was the night he went to the Lucky Strike Lanes on Grand River Avenue in Detroit in the late winter of 1950. "The greatest thing that ever happened to me," says Gordie, "is that I went to watch a young lady bowl."
It's no surprise that in Colleen's self-published autobiography, and...HOWE!, she included some of Gordie's love letters.
June 14, 1952
Once again I have heard three sweet words from you which I should use more often and that is, "I miss you." They sound awful good coming to me from such a sweet young lady as you and again I say I should use them much more often. But the truth is I don't know much of sweet words so just give me time as I am a comer.