More than 30 family and friends helped Gordie Howe celebrate his 85th birthday Sunday at a private dinner in Detroit.
On a fall afternoon in Sylvania, a hockey god picked up a broom and began sweeping the leaves off the sidewalks in front of his son’s home. He began to meander, yet kept pushing the broom from side to side until each slab of concrete was bare.
As he worked his way along the block and onto a neighbor’s property line, a neighbor stepped out of his car and did a double-take as the Hockey Hall of Famer continued to sweep aside leaves.
“Hold on,” the neighbor said. “Let me grab a camera. Who else can brag that Gordie Howe sweeps their driveway?”
Murray Howe watched the scene unfold from his front porch, careful not to intrude. But in recalling that moment, Murray Howe couldn’t help but to grin. It was only in his father’s nature to lend a hand and be useful.
When Murray Howe walks through the halls of ProMedica Toledo Hospital, he does so with a certain purpose — similar to that of his father, a Detroit Red Wings legend.
Though he hails from the first family of hockey, Murray Howe chose his own path. As the chairman of Toledo Hospital’s department of radiology, he helps solve a few medical mysteries involving sports medicine radiology and imaging. In his line of work, the pictures tell a deeper story.
“There’s a lot of things that X-rays don’t show, a lot of injuries,” said Dr. Howe, who also is the team radiologist for the Toledo Walleye at its imaging facility, Toledo Radiological Associates. “An X-ray may show that everything looks normal, but what you’re dealing with now and the mechanism of injury, it’s quite possible that it could be problem ‘X,’ and let’s consider an MRI to show something better,” Howe said.
Like his father, he is helpful in his own way.
“He’s very helpful, but he is not afraid to make a call,” said Dr. Roger Kruse, the medical director of sports care with ProMedica. “Murray will make the call and say, that’s it. But he’s always willing to look at someone else’s MRI, and he won’t get paid a cent for it. Even more so, he’s always willing to look at other people’s studies and he is always willing to learn. He understands that it’s teamwork.”
Skating into a career
On Sunday, the Detroit Red Wings wore identical warm-up jerseys emblazoned with “HOWE 9” — in honor of Gordie Howe, who carved his legacy with the franchise.
Gordie Howe turned 85 that day, a celebration that brought Howe’s four children to Detroit to watch the Red Wings’ 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks and to share a private celebration with family and friends.
While he is still physically strong, Gordie Howe can’t be left alone for long stretches of time; his children explained that his memory has diminished, the effects of dementia.
But, Murray Howe said, “Dad is doing very, very well. He definitely has some short-term memory problems, and it’s his biggest challenge right now. It’s very frustrating for him because he just says, “Well, I can’t remember this.’
“But he’s very much himself. He’s very upbeat and enjoys each day. And he wants to be functional. Whoever he’s with, all he wants to do is to be helpful. He can’t sit and watch television at all. From the second he wakes up, he is on the go.”
Yet as his father set records and established himself as one of the NHL’s most skilled and most physical right wings while in his prime, Murray Howe and his brothers would play floor hockey underneath the stands of Olympia Stadium. Then, Murray Howe played youth hockey as a teenager in Toronto on a traveling team that included Wayne Gretzky, who ultimately inherited Gordie Howe’s role as a decisive NHL superstar.
But Murray Howe jokes that in light of his lineage and his famous teammates, he had little future as a pro hockey player.
“I have absolutely no excuses for why I wasn’t very good, other than, I just was not very good,” Howe said, with a wry smile. “On the same team with Gretzky, he was the best … and I was the worst.”
In the fall of his freshman year, the University of Michigan hockey team cut Howe. He harbored some hesitation breaking the news to his parents that his hockey career was over.
“I think my dad said something along the lines of, ‘Thank God I don’t have to worry about that anymore!’ ” he said. “My mom said something like, ‘Good, now I don’t have to worry about you getting hurt.’
“That took the pressure off me.”
Mark Howe remembers conversations he had with his younger brother during that first year at Michigan, and he saw signs that a life in hockey wasn’t in the cards for Murray. His younger brother averaged three to four hours of sleep a night and spent weekends studying — not conducive to either a social life or ice time.
“I could kind of see Murray didn’t have it in him to be a hockey player,” said Mark Howe, who is the director of pro scouting with the Red Wings. “You have to have a certain mind-set to be a hockey player, and Murray’s such a nice person and that doesn’t necessarily work when you’re in competition. But Murray is extremely competitive with himself. He pushes himself.”
Murray Howe’s original dream was to be a forest ranger and a writer. But as he went through his undergraduate work in Ann Arbor, he found himself drawn to and excelling in the hard sciences.
“I had zero exposure to medicine, other than seeing my father and brothers get put back together,” he said. “I had no concept of what it was to be a physician. It just seemed like it would be fun. But the more I was around the medical center, I loved it.”
But his first intention wasn’t to make a career out of simply reading X-rays.
Mark Howe said, “Murray used to call me from medical school, and he told me that he really wanted to work with people. But he went to school at the time when the MRI unit was being created and he found that so fascinating, and he was trying to figure out how he could get out and help people and work with them, and not just look at X-rays all day. He found out how to do that.”
An anonymous start
Murray Howe’s mother, Colleen, died in 2009 of Pick’s disease, a rare neurological disorder. Yet she instilled many qualities that still resonate within him. But his mother reminded him of one thing as he grew up in suburban Detroit.
“Don’t tell people who your father is,” Colleen Howe told her four children, Murray, Mark, Marty, and Cathy.
Howe continues to maintain that personal policy, but doesn’t bristle when someone makes the connection between him and his father. He embraces it.
“But when I tell them who I am, then they don’t believe me, anyways,” Howe said. “Because I’m about 100 pounds smaller and a foot shorter than my dad and brothers. So they’re like, ‘Really? What happened to you?’ ”
Sometimes, people made a different connection. When Howe was going through his rotations in the 1980s, an attending physician approached him at a time when a popular yet troubled University of Michigan product pitched in the major leagues.
“No, no,” Howe would tell them. “I’m of no relation to Steve Howe.”
“But my fellow students kept waiting, like, ‘Hey, he’s going to tell them he’s Gordie Howe’s son,’ ” he said, laughing.
Howe never did. After finishing medical school at Michigan in 1986, he completed a fellowship in sports medicine imaging, part of a fellowship in medical imaging, and several colleagues at Michigan mentioned Toledo as a potential city where Howe could practice radiology. Howe scoffed. But when he arrived in Toledo 21 years ago, he was hooked.
“It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Howe said.
Finding his calling
At 52, Howe is a bicycle commuter — not a hockey player. He’s writing a book about being the only Howe male in his family to not have a career in playing hockey, and his father still jokingly refers to him as “the little guy.”
He has taken his own path. In that same vein, so have Howe’s four children. His oldest daughter is studying to be a podiatrist. One son lives in Arizona, and another is a bioengineering major at Toledo. His youngest son, he claims, is “the Gordie Howe of dance.”
And while others may be surprised to find out that a third Howe son doesn’t play hockey, Mark Howe doesn’t believe that hockey is what defines his family.
“Anybody that knows our family and knows my father, nobody talks about him being a hockey player,” Mark Howe said. “The people who know my family, who know my sister, my father, my mother, my brother, they speak about the people they are and the things they’ve done for so many others, for the kind of people they are.
“Murray? This was his calling for life. Everybody in our family has been lucky, because we all got to do what we wanted to do and what we love to do.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.