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BILL DWYRE

Gordie Howe turns, yes, 83

Happy birthday to the hockey legend who played 32 seasons and now is reelin' in the years. Every night he was on the ice, Howe 'did something that would amaze you,' says his son Mark Howe.

March 30, 2011|Bill Dwyre

If you are a sports fan with a touch of gray hair here and there, the next sentence may be difficult to read. Thursday is Gordie Howe's 83rd birthday.

Yes, time flies, much like Howe did on the ice for all those 26 seasons in the NHL and the six more he played in the World Hockey Assn. It seems less possible that he could have reached this milestone because he was still playing in 1980 for the NHL's Hartford Whalers.

"At 51, in his last season, he was playing nine to 10 minutes a game," says his son Mark. "He wanted to play more, and if they had let him, he could have had a 50-point season."

In that 1979-80 season, Gordie Howe played in all 80 games.

In all, he played a record 1,767 games in the NHL. He is the only man to have played in the league in five decades. He was the league's most valuable player six times and its leading scorer six times. His 801 goals remain the second best of all time behind only Wayne Gretzky's 894.

The game was such a part of him, and he of it, that not only did his nickname, Mr. Hockey, become a registered trademark, but so did that of his wife, Colleen. She was Mrs. Hockey.

"When he was 45 or 46," Mark says, "he was as good as anybody I'd ever seen. He was by far the best player in the WHA. Every night, he did something that would amaze you.

"I'm 55 now, and I have no idea how he did it."

If you are a sports fan, it also will be difficult to learn that Gordie Howe does not do many interviews these days, although he still makes appearances and signs autographs.

"He loves to be around people and to talk to kids," Mark says, "but he gets a little confused sometimes."

That's not to say that Gordie Howe does not still lead a fairly robust life.

Since Colleen died two years ago of Pick's disease, a rare form of dementia, Gordie Howe has rotated living with his three sons. Two are former pro hockey players, Marty and Mark, and a third, Murray, is a radiologist. A daughter, Cathy, lives in Texas. Marty runs the family's business ventures, and Mark, who had a stellar 16-year career in the NHL, is the chief pro scout for the Detroit Red Wings, the team he with which he finished his career and the team of Gordie's fame.

Now, in the later years of his life, Gordie Howe has gone fishin'.

"Back in February," Mark says, "Marty had him down in Florida for a three-day fishing trip. They had a couple of sails [sailfish] on and were trying for tarpon but didn't raise any."

And in a few months, when things get quieter in the off-season for Mark, Gordie will move in with him in Jackson, N.J., just north of Atlantic City, and will live the life of a Hemingway novel. He will be the old man and the sea.

"I've got a 43-footer, and we'll live on the boat a lot," Mark says. "The shore house is only a couple of blocks away, but we'll stay on the boat and do our own clamming. And when the weather is nice, we'll be out 70 miles offshore, looking for 60- or 70-pound tuna. He loves fishing. We'll be out there noon to noon the next day, or more, and he'll sleep a little, but he'll carry his own weight. It's a tough trip, taxing on me, but he'll do fine."

Howe's strength is legendary. They have a statistic in the NHL, actually listed in several teams' official game tallies, that is called a Gordie Howe hat trick. A player earns one when he has a goal, an assist and gets into a fight.

"They like to tell a story about when Davey Keon was a young player for the Maple Leafs," Mark says. "He took the puck away from my dad in a game and was warned by his teammates when he got back to the bench to be careful about doing that again. He went out there, did it again and woke up the next day in the hospital.

"Off the ice, my dad was a mostly gentle person. On it, he was mostly nasty."

Gordie Howe came out of retirement in 1973, after having surgery on a badly injured wrist, so he could play alongside sons Mark and Marty. He did that — in the WHA and his last season back in the NHL with Hartford — for seven years.

"You didn't really appreciate how good he was," Mark says, "until you sat on the bench or played in a game with him. He'd always tell me to just find an open spot, and every time I did, the puck was right there."

If you are a sports fan, with a touch of gray hair here and there, it should not be difficult at all to picture one of the premier hockey players of all time doted on by his children and enjoying his 83rd year on the back of a boat, with the rod bent double and a big fish on.

And it should not it be hard to picture the big fish losing the battle, because that's what most of Gordie Howe's opponents did.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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