By this time, the awkward Romeo had been in Detroit for six seasons, had played in five All-Star Games, had seen his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, had led the league in scoring twice, and had just been named MVP for the first of six times. 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, Ab, drove that tractor on his farm outside Saskatoon. Her father, Howard Mulvaney, played the trombone in the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Gordie had always planned to marry early: "I thought it should be before 25," he says. "Why be old and have young kids?"
Colleen concurred. From the moment she 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. "When Bobby told me how much he was making, I said, 'Oh, Jesus' I believed him, but what could you say? 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!"
Until the WHA came along in 1972, there was not much Colleen could do about her husband's pay, and the family lived modestly. Eventually, Mrs. Hockey nudged the Red Wings to raise Mr. Hockey's salary toward $100,000.
"Part of my dad's greatness is that he never made big money?' Murray says. "I'm glad that I didn't grow up with a silver spoon. It's a blessing that we grew up as a middle-class family."
Obscured in the onrush of encomiums for Gordie in response to the news of his wife's illness is the harsher side that he showed on the ice. "He won't like me saying this, but he was the most cruel hockey player I ever saw," says Mark, who played 22 years in the WHA and NHL. "Vicious. Absolutely nasty. He was highly skilled. He was bigger [six-feet, 205 pounds] than most of the other players of that era, and he had a meanness to him. If somebody wanted to go that way, he would go as far as that player wanted. I saw some of the stuff he did when nobody was looking.
"Hurting people—maybe that's what makes a great athlete, the willingness to do anything to win," Mark continues. "If he did some of the stuff now that he did then, he'd be suspended all the time. In Houston a guy hurt Marty in practice. I don't know how many teeth Gordie knocked out of that guy's mouth, but it was quite a few—and this was our teammate!
"I remember when we played together, I'd go into the boards and the man who was covering me would hit me and I'd take the check. Then, a second later, I'd feel this boom! It was Dad hitting the guy who hit me! I told him, I know you're trying to protect me, but Dad, I can take his hit, just not yours! "