"Once he put the skates on, he was a different person," agrees Marty, who is an assistant coach for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. "When we went to training camp the first year in Houston, I was scared for him. After practice, he turned not just red [from exhaustion] but different shades of purple. After 10 days, though, he was dominating everybody."
Last spring, as the Wings moved toward their 10th Stanley Cup, Mark spent some time with his mother in her last days of mental clarity. He saw his father's sadness sagging into hopelessness. "On the ice we always called him Gordie," Mark says, "but when he was hurt, we called him Dad."
When you claim your bags at the gleaming new Northwest Airlines terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, big Number 9 looks down on you from a mural of sporting heroes. At the Joe Louis Arena a photograph on a pillar outside Section 111 shows him in his early 20s, taut and sharp, a Superman lick of hair across his brow. And a tribute to youth hockey posted nearby reads: THIS IS THE FOUNDATION THAT GETS MOMS AND DADS OUT OF BED ON DARK, COLD WINTER MORNINGS SO THEIR SONS OR DAUGHTERS CAN SKATE. AND THE DREAM IS ALWAYS THE SAME: MAYBE MY KID WILL BE THE NEXT GORDIE HOWE....
To his grandchildren, he 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. I asked him what he would like to do when she's gone, and 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 Jade was very young. She told Gordie once, "PeePaw, I'm going to marry a man like you when I grow up."
"Then Jade went in the other room," Cathy says, "and I told my father, 'She doesn't realize—there are no more like you.' "