With a keen business mind and the interests of her husband and sons at heart, Colleen Howe was the glue that held the Howe family together.
She was such an integral part of her husband Gordie Howe’s hockey career that her nickname was Mrs. Hockey. Gordie was Mr. Hockey, reflecting his status as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer before Wayne Gretzky broke his records, so it seemed right the woman who worked so hard for him behind the scenes should get a similar title.
Colleen Howe died Friday at the age of 76 in the family home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., following a long battle with Pick’s disease, an incurable neurological form of dementia.
She was the outspoken business manager of one of the most prominent families in the history of the sport. As the first female hockey player agent she was as forceful in the boardroom as her husband was in rink corners for the Detroit Red Wings.
“The National Hockey League grieves the passing of Colleen Howe – a formidable woman, the wife and partner of our iconic player, the matriarch of a remarkable hockey family,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
There is no known cure for Pick’s disease. Colleen was diagnosed with it in 2002. Her judgment and behaviour became impaired and her speech and memory more scrambled as the condition worsened.
“I thank God for the years we had,” Gordie Howe said upon their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005.
Colleen was an only child raised by her divorced mother, with the help of an aunt and uncle, until her mother remarried. Colleen grew up on a farm outside Sandusky, Mich., where an arena was eventually named after her, and in Detroit.
Gordie Howe met Colleen Joffa at the Detroit bowling alley Lucky Strike Lanes during the 1951-52 Red Wings hockey season. She was a gregarious teen and he was a bashful but star player. They were married on April 15, 1953.
The couple had four children: Marty, Mark, Cathleen and Murray. The latter became a doctor who was involved in treating his mother in her final years.
As her children grew up, Colleen became involved in youth hockey. She drove her three sons to their games and, including her husband’s NHL games, she might have attended as many as 200 games a year.
When there was no local junior team for which highly touted prospects Marty and Mark, she helped found the Detroit Junior Red Wings. She was general manager for three years.
She became heavily involved the business aspect of the careers of her husband and sons. It was an aspect of hockey in which Gordie had little interest.
“He just hates paperwork and stuff like that,” she once explained. “Over the years, I’ve just naturally taken on more and more of it.”
Gordie was happy to have her do it.
“People say I’m henpecked,” Howe once said. “Well, let them say it.
“Colleen likes doing things and she does them pretty well so I say let her carry on. She’s done a great job raising the kids and keeping me going.”
She headed up Power Play International, Inc. (formerly Howe Enterprises,) which controlled all business aspects of her husband’s hockey career, and that of her sons through their early pro seasons.
“She did so much for Gordie,” former Montreal Canadien Dickie Moore said Friday. “Gordie did a lot in hockey and she did a lot for him.”
Gordie retired in 1971 after playing 25 years in Detroit. He expected to work with the Red Wings at the management level but that didn’t pan out.
Colleen was named Sportswoman of the Year in Detroit in 1972.
The NHL draft was set at age 20 at the time, so she encouraged the Houston Aeros of the rival World Hockey Association to draft sons Mark, 18, and Marty, 19.
Aeros coach Bill Dineen, who had played in Detroit with Gordie, then asked the boys’ father to consider coming out of retirement at age 45.
“Colleen had already seen what life away from hockey could do to my spirit and she knew how much it would mean to me to play with the boys,” Howe wrote in his 1999 book “My Hockey Memories.”
She negotiated contracts for all three, working out a four-year, US$1.8-million package deal for them to sign in 1974 to play for Houston.
She processed their fan mail – much of which was saved over the years – prepared itineraries and arranged plane tickets and booked hotels for non-team travel.
She wrote a book “My Three Hockey Players” to explain how the family operated and gave frank details about her relationship with Gordie.
“Gordie has probably had a good look at somebody else,” she wrote. “For all I know, he may have had an affair or two.
“What I do know is how deeply Gordie feels about me and the rest of his family. With that, I feel secure.”
She was such an argumentative negotiator that some gave her the nickname Dragon Lady.
“She’s tough and very thorough in her research,” Dineen said.
The Howes split with the Aeros after being criticized for declining the deferral of their salaries during a team financial crisis.
She then negotiated a deal with the New England Whalers of the WHA. The Boston Bruins wanted the Howes, especially Mark, but Colleen preferred the guarantees in the Whalers’ offer.
“I’ve dealt with quite a few agents and she rates very highly,” Whalers president Howard Baldwin said.
Wherever the family moved, she became involved in civic projects. The Hartford Chamber of Commerce gave her an award in 1979 for outstanding community achievement.
When the WHA folded and the Whalers were absorbed into the NHL in 1979, the three Howes lined up for Gordie’s last NHL season. He retired for good in 1980 at age 52, although he did skate briefly with the IHL’s Detroit Vipers in the 1990s so he could lay claim to playing in yet another decade.
Through it all, Colleen managed family businesses and charities, and even ran unsuccessfully for a Connecticut seat in the U.S. Congress.
“If Colleen Howe had been a hockey player, she would have been a centremen,” her husband once wrote. “I can see her as a centreman because you can do what you want and go wherever you want to go.”
When there was a house to buy, it was Colleen who did the buying. She also held a licence to act as an insurance agent.
She was a successful businesswoman into the 21st century in obtaining a long list of endorsement deals based on Gordie’s legendary status.
The Howes received the Wayne Gretzky Award from the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 for their contributions to the sport in that country.
She was a great cook, loved needlework and other crafts, played an electric organ, and liked to surprise. She sometimes paid the tab for strangers at restaurants just to see their reactions.
Once, a neighbour’s cat died and she gift-wrapped a kitten and left it on their doorstep with an anonymous note signed with paw prints.
“She was very nice to me one time when I didn’t even know her that well,” Moore said. “She said ‘Dickie, you should meet Bettman. Come over and I’ll introduce you to him.’ She thought of other people.
“She was a beautiful, caring lady.”
Through the Howe Foundation set up in 1993, and the 65-city 65th birthday Gordie Howe tribute tour, the family helped generate millions of dollars for charities and worthwhile causes directed towards children.
“And . . . Howe!” was another book she helped organize in 1995. It sold over 135,000 hardcover copies and raised more than $1 million for charitable causes. The couple made more than 300 appearances in six years to promote the book.
Recognition of their efforts was widespread. There is the Howe Arena in Traverse City, Mich., and there also is the Colleen and Gordie Howe Middle School in Abbotsford, B.C.
Mark Howe, who gained all-star status in the NHL as a defenceman, is the pro scout for the Red Wings today. Marty Howe is a successful home builder and designer and had no problem with his mother representing him during his playing career.
“If it wasn’t for her courage and fortitude, we wouldn’t have done half the things we accomplished,” Marty said.
In the Red Wings’ book tribute book to Gordie Howe published in October 2007, Howe wrote this dedication to his wife: “While I received the applause, you stood behind me and cheered the loudest. While I focused on improving my game, you made sure the bills were getting paid. While I was on the overnight trains and planes from city to city, you were tucking in the kids and teaching them to pray for their daddy.
“You have been my biggest fan. My agent. My dietician. My counsellor. And even now as you battle for your life, you are my inspiration, my strength, and the love of my life.”
Colleen Howe leaves nine grandchildren, who affectionately called her Honey, and one great grandchild. Her nickname came from grandson Travis. When he was a tot, Travis was told what was in a plastic bear container on the Howe kitchen table.
Gordie put his arm around Colleen that morning and said to Travis, “And this is my honey.”
Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately available.